REVIEW: Alita: Battle Angel
I’m not a major Manga fan but am certainly aware of the most popular and enduring properties, such as Gunnm, a.k.a. Battle Angel Alita, which ran from 1990-1995 and was adapted into two-part anime. By 2000, James Cameron had been made aware of the series and immediately wanted to bring it to the big screen. He allowed himself to get repeatedly distracted so he eventually handed off the directing chores to Robert Rodriguez, who took the mammoth script Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, and honed it down to something 20th Century Fox could afford.
After all that build up, several other Japanese stories had made it to American audiences, with few making a positive splash (Ghost in the Shell, anyone?). So, when Alita: Battle Angel finally arrived this year, audiences were primed to be awed or disappointed. Had the film arrived two decades ago, it would have been a far more interesting and arresting story, but by now so many of its elements had been mined elsewhere that it felt less than fresh.
Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg with a human brain, discovered in Iron City by Dr. Dyson (Christoph Waltz), who brings it back to life and names her after his deceased daughter. We’re in a world three centuries after an alien attack devasted the world in what is now called The Fall. Life is cheap, criminal enterprises run rampant, and survival is always iffy.
Alita remembers nothing of her past but over time discovers her battle instincts so while she’s a on a quest to establish herself, she fights in order to control her destiny. While Dyson is a positive influence, his ex-wife, Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) is less so, working for the criminal entrepreneur Victor (Mahershala Ali). With junk dealer Hugo (Kennan Johnson) as her only friend, Alita enters the Motorball games to earn money to help him, which is where many of the set pieces occur.
It’s a visually rich story and the worldbuilding is fine, no surprise from Rodriguez, who shifted from his Grindhouse days to his special effects-laden kids films. It’s nice to see him blend interests here. The cast is certainly diverse with some big names in an unusual genre offering. Uncredited is Edward Norton’s criminal Nova, seeded here for the hoped-for sequel, and other familiar faces include Jackie Earle Haley, Rick Yune, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jai Courtney.
The problem beyond the feeling of having seen it all before, is that the characters don’t snap to life, playing their parts without complexity or variety, deadening what could have been fascinating.
The film, out now from 20th Century Home Entertainment, is available in the usual varieties, including the Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD combo pack. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.39:1 is perfectly fine, if unexceptional, just like the film itself. It does capture the color palette quite well even if the CGI portions are just a little soft. Better is the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track, helping bring the world to life.
While the packaging boasts two hours of extras, they’re more perfunctory than revelatory. We have a variety of behind-the-scenes pieces ranging from short to medium-length starting with The Fall (5:05), Iron City (3:19), What It Means to be a Cyborg (2:28), Rules of the Game (2:52), From Manga to Screen (20:47); Evolution of Alita (19:43) is an overview of the character. Motorball (6:02), London Screening Q & A (26:38) with Cameron, Rodriguez, Salazar, Waltz and Connelly; 10 Minute Cooking School: Chocolate (5:28); and the confusingly named 2005 Art Compilation (2019) (14:20).
The most fun extra is Scene Deconstruction (10:47), which allows the viewer to use the remote’s color buttons to toggle through various levels of digital rendering for four sequences: I Don’t Even Know My Name, Just an Insignificant Girl, I’m a Warrior, Aren’t I?, and Kansas Bar.