By: Felix Felicis (Six Pack) –
Welcome to the Punderdome, dearest readers, and for those who have been here before you know that not a lot I write up gets either a Toast or an entire Six Pack very often (as I rarely think of any film as flawless or, alternatively, without redemption). So when either of those two things happens, it’s because of a perfect cinematic storm has come together to shower us unworthy recipients with either perfection or – on the other end of the silverscreen spectrum – room temp, bottom-of-the-bag-on-a-summer’s-day box office garbage juice. I will say that Alita: Battle Angel has done something fairly impressive because it’s equaled (though not quite surpassed) my current subterranean filmic yardstick for “bad”, 2017’s Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets – which dethroned 2014’s Interstellar for the title before that. I could go on. Some people 23andME their lineage back until they find out they’re descended from either Attila the Hun and/or a miniature leek farmer of little renown. Really not a lot of middle ground, there. I trace my (pop cultural) ancestry by which movies didn’t make (or shouldn’t have made) Darwin’s dinner party guest list.
Alita: Battle Angel follows Rosa Salazar (of the Maze Runner franchise) as an amnesiac, nameless, Junkyard Torso (subsequently christened “Alita” as she’s first found, and then restored by Dr. Dyson Ido – originally Daisuke Ido in the manga series) by a man I’m usually not mad at seeing onscreen, Christoph Waltz. Alita goes from zero-to-sixty as she finds a friend/love interest (Nashville alum Keean Johnson as “Hugo”), father figure (Waltz’s “Ido”), abandoned spacecraft with secrets, like three mortal enemies (assorted with an uncredited, non-speaking, Ed Norton sequel-setup cameo), two jobs, a body swap, fame, her latent memories, betrayal, heartbreak, and a reason to quest for vengeance all within seventy-two hours of popping those oversized-eyes open on her reactivation/revival in a post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk, one-stop-shop Iron City emergency clinic. I’ll give you a minute to adjust to the whiplash James Cameron of it all and then we’ll get elbow-deep in this pile of cinematic triceratops shit.
Well I didn’t contract any of the now-extinct forms of paleolithic typhus while watching Alita, so there’s that I guess. There were also a few interesting visuals and action sequences that, taken as vignettes, were fairly watchable (if you put the movie on mute). Fight sequences and Rollerball games alone do not a reason to watch this VFX fuckery make. Additionally, I don’t know if it’s a “positive” or not, but, one action sequence ends with Alita literally giving it her all (if you watch Battle Angel trust me this joke kills) to defeat an adversary which had me lol’ing pretty inappropriately given the intended gravitas of the situatio- OH AND SPEAKING OF LOL’S, there was another bit where Alita, again literally gives her heart to her love interest, if you can call it that (more on that later) not to mention yet another super off-putting moment that involves Alita saving someone’s life in a way that I can’t explain without spoiling the “twist” as it were.
The more I think about Alita the more I realize any enjoyment I got out of the experience was at the expense of the film and not because of it (and that’s not really a reason to give it credit so this whole Toast is a lie). Just like the time I told my mom I loved the turducken she served Thanksgiving of 1998.
I had a real fucknugget of a week recently that I can only describe as “vengeance from the great beyond as I have surely offended someone’s ancestors” which delayed completion of this review and I can only conclude that we’ve all died and Alita: Battle Angel is the circle of hell reserved for people who fart in an elevator and blame it on an unsuspecting coworker and/or traveling nun. That said, Alita relies, heavily, on the assumption that you have a solid handle on the original material (Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga series, ‘Gunnm’ – translated as ‘Battle Angel Alita’ in US publications). And you know what happens when you make an assumption, kidlets. That’s right, you make an ass out of “u” and “me” (not to mention waste everyone’s time on muddled mocap that’s been in development hell for twenty years). But mostly that second one.
When they’re not awkwardly shoe-horning in the combination of words “battle”, “angel” and “Alita” into the rollerball commentary to try and force this bland, gelatinous Jell-O mix (is boring a flavor?) of an adaptation into a super generic mold, Alita is going zero-to-sixty on barely skimming the surface of style over (narrative) substance for a domestic audience who will likely be unfamiliar with the source material (if they even know there is source material). They’re so focused on setting up a sequel that they barely half-ass a first run at the OG IP – which would’ve given a second cinematic crab shack more than wafer-thin stilts to stand on. This is a critical error on Alita’s part as the international market isn’t likely to pick up enough of a difference in slack to make Disney want to take a chance on lukewarm (if not dismal) returns and greenlight a sequel which has little chance of being any better now that they have a smorgasbord of other content to choose from after their acquisition of Fox finalizes this summer.
Alita needed to take a page out of John Wick‘s badass book and deliver a complete experience, totally in the moment, while leaving the sequel door open just the barest crack. Build a world people are going to Kool-Aid Man through walls to come back to and you won’t have to worry about elaborate (yet empty) franchise-building setups, you’ll already have gotten the go-ahead on take two. Yeah, I know Beer Two was super boring and I seized no less than three times typing it all out but the sad (actual) fact is that numbers move the line on studio decision-making and (as this is pretty much the last purely Fox release) that’s very likely going to be the nail in the coffin of Alita’s electric sheep sequel dreams.
Now that we’ve gotten the very practical nightmare of Alita’s logistical asshattery out of the way, let’s get to work on everything else it did wrong.
Alita: Battle Angel was a tonally confused, derivative, bleak black hole where quality cinema and science-fiction went to die. Borrowing heavily from Ready Player One (already a mistake if you’ve read my review of that fecal fuckwittery) Battle Angel’s narrative is strongly reminiscent of the usual dystopian future shenanigans – including plucking an unlikely “chosen one” (with an optional mysterious past) from obscurity to save the common riff raff from stock-standard overlords. But, and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, Ready Player One actually gives its villains more depth (not like actual well-rounded character development, god no, more like a puddle you could drown in if your one weakness was water).
Alita also borrowed some genre tropes from Hunger Games as well. I mean, far less successfully, but dangling the lure of an ascension to a better life living on a virtually inaccessible utopia through one very specific tournament is peak ripoff Hunger Games. Why? Your guess is as good as mine (they never actually explain the rationale behind a virtual paradise recruiting cutthroat rollerblading champions). Is it worth it? Fuck if we know, BECAUSE WE NEVER SEE THIS PROMISED LAND “ZALEM” but as everyone is willing to lie, cheat, and dismember to get there, I can only theorize it’s filled with thousands of Jeff Goldblum clones (of which each resident is assigned one) all kissing puppies and just generally being too pure for this world. If that’s the case, I can understand why admittance to the city is damn near impossible – WHO WANTS TO SHARE JEFF GOLDBLUM?!
If you sit through the entirety of Battle Angel with a strong sense of déjà vu, rest assured – you’re not crazy. You’ve definitely seen better versions of this movie a hundred times over and you’ll, guaranteed, see them again (because if it’s one thing studios love doing, it’s recycling old shit through new filters).
In addition to the half-assed world-building, rushed sequel setup, and derivative, regurgitated genre tropes, Alita gifted us with sloppy storytelling and an inconsistent narrative so chock-full of terrible dialogue and plot holes that it makes A-X-L look well-written (just kidding they both were penned by coked-up groundhogs locked in a murder basement and given a cliché-themed Mad Libs book to fill out).
Nothing, I repeat, NOTHING about this movie is even RELATED to making sense. I’ve never read the manga, but from what I can infer, Alita’s journey to self-discovery and character-arc-self-actualization is drawn out over time. I get that a studio wants to data-download-dump the details so an audience can follow the storyline, but there’s teasing out a narrative and then there’s just fucking shotgun blasting someone in the face with it. From start to finish, Alita goes from naive amnesiac who Little-Mermaid-First-Time-On-Land experiences chocolate with childlike innocence and joy to stone-cold Murder Sailor Moon confidence as she gives a rallying speech to a bar full of morally bankrupt bounty hunters before kicking ass. So much ass. Like all of the ass. I’ve heard of “Born Sexy” (Wonder Woman going from babe in the woods to babe getting wood from Chris Pine) but Battle Angel takes this to another level with “Born Deadly” as Alita goes from clumsily learning how to rollerball to flawless killing machine in the same amount of time Wonder Woman took to ride that pony.
Also within the span of those three days, Alita bonds with her borderline-creepy father figure (nothing is EVER inferred by the narrative to be an abuse of his paternal power dynamic, but in real-world context with finding a female cyborg, putting her in the body you designed for the tragically since-murdered original intended recipient you’re related to, and also giving the cyborg that family member’s name is a whole kettle of transference fish which we don’t have a fraction of the time we’d need to get into in order to properly unpack how fucked up that is) that everyone seems to accept as perfectly normal. It may be just me, but there’s a scene in the marketplace where Alita meets her love interest, Hugo (more on that next) and insta-dad comes RUSHING in to fend off the interaction in a really weird (arm protectively around the shoulder), out of proportion way (she’s been active for less than 24 hours) that gives me weird Nabokovian ‘Lolita‘ vibes for some reason and it’s equally as awkward – given the truncated time frame – every time they have a father/daughter moment and, by the end of the movie, Alita is calling Dr. Ido’s character “dad”.
Now let’s talk about the ill-advised and totally unnecessary love interest angle (purely generated to add some teen-angst allure and box office draw within that same dynamic). Hugo is a cyberpunk, street-wise Aladdin, who shows Alita the world she’s woken up in – and is basically the only person she knows other than Dyson Ido – (this in no way creates a dependent, imbalanced, power dynamic for a relationship to form on AT ALL as she literally has no other options) which is questionable enough without adding the fact that Alita has a pre-teenish cyborg body for the first half of the film until she gains an adaptive cyborg body later on (with an ESPECIALLY off-putting moment when she, while bonding cybernetically with the body, ages up to a woman’s curvature – a petite woman’s body but a woman all the same – at which point the nurse assisting the procedure turns to Dr. Ido and goes “I guess she’s older than you thought”). An innocuous enough comment on one hand, but on the other hand…
Now add to that zero chemistry between Hugo and Alita (I’m not sure if it’s the uncanny valley of it all as all the other cyborgs have their actual actor’s faces imposed onto CGI bodies and Alita is a fully rendered CGI construct of Rosa Salazar or if they just have no basis for genuine connection) and the truncated timeline, but it makes the conclusion of the film – which COMPLETELY RIDES on you buying into this romantic dynamic between the two – a split hair away from being ridiculously laughable. It says something about today’s cinema that you can’t just have a young woman coming into her own and discovering who she is be a compelling enough story on its own without her having a man to swoon over, talk about, or fall in love with. Girl, you’ve been awake for THREE DAYS. Join Match dot come, Bumble or even effing Tinder. You have OPTIONS (even in the apocalypse). One of which is a Netflix subscription and pad thai for one. Not to mention Hugo is just a real dickface, straight-up no chaser, and I don’t care what anyone says; you can’t fall in love (actual legitimate love) in three days – even after waking up from a three-hundred-year coma, that’s still an epic stretch.
If you thought you were going to get through this review without me bringing up the Ghost in the Shell of it all (the consistent, pervasive, and expansive whitewashing of characters of color – and other cultures – by Hollywood in favor of trading on Box Office name recognition) then you’re higher than the kite that whoever cast Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido was riding on.
Much like the bland af Iron Fist adaptation starring Finn Jones, Alita just says “fuck it” to accurate genre casting – which would have enhanced the pan-cultural dystopian experience of Battle Angel– in favor of the normally excellent (though wildly miscast in this case) and box-office-bankable Christoph Waltz. I’m never going to stop talking about this because Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther prove that audiences can have their cultural inclusivity and representation at the same time studios make a profit, too.
Battle Angel also does less-than-zero favors for gender equality and/or politics in a film supposedly all about it. At no point in time is Alita not being used by someone for some sort of personal gain and it’s almost exclusively men doing the using. Subconsciously or not, Dr. Dyson Ido wants a replacement for the loved one he lost, and, after a feeble-at-best attempt to reject those projected expectations, Alita allows herself to fall into the role (mutually beneficial or not) that Ido has crafted for her. Bland villain Vector (Mahershala Ali) is the most upfront about his intentions to use Alita as trade goods with another man (in Zalem) Nova (an uncredited Edward Norton) who’s hell-bent-for-leather about capturing Alita (which is weird since she was found in a landfill of stuff that fell from Zalem so he presumably already had a shot at her and missed). The only person that has malicious intent to capitalize on the use of Alita to fulfill their goals is Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connolly) who has the tiniest of character arcs (and minute redemption at the last minute) by rejecting her intent to use Alita and assisting her instead (proving that even as villains women just do it better).
Also riding the male privilege train with a first-class ticket is Alita’s wildly exploitative love interest, Hugo, who at no point is honest with her about his actual intentions and – even in the film’s penultimate scene where Hugo throws away the second chance Alita gave him – projects no genuine remorse or any real reciprocation of feelings back at Alita (I mean, from what my long-term-memory hasn’t scrubbed clean yet, I’m almost certain Alita tells Hugo she loves him and he just ghosts her in a super definite way – which is about all I can say without spoilers). But they had an equally successful a run as Romeo and Juliet did in the same time frame, which is all you can really expect from teens in a steampunk future dystopia, really. It’s almost impressive, actually, how subversively offensive Battle Angel was considering the characters had as many dimensions as a piece of paper or dealer’s choice Jersey Shore cast member (two, that’s two dimensions).
Just don’t think too hard about why anyone does anything in this movie and you might make it out okay. Maybe. But probably not.
Alita: Battle Angel (2019 ) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone talks about, or attempts, to capture and/or use Alita for her Last Unicorn-esque cyborg skillz/tech.
Take a Sip: for each flashback memory and/or mention of the lost art of Panzer Kunst.
Take a Drink: anytime Alita kicks ass or loses a piece of herself in battle.
Do a Shot: for every cyborg body someone gets Lego-snapped into.
Take a Drink: for every mention of “Rollerball or “Zalem”.
Shotgun Your Beer: for when Hugo literally “falls” out of love.