Review: 'Alita: Battle Angel' is an intriguing journey with unfortunate character design

Marcus Goh
Contributor
PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

When your title character is an animated CGI character with anime-style proportions (impossibly gigantic eyes and impossibly thin limbs) who interacts in a live-action world full of regular human beings, then the art design and quality of the special effects will make it or break it for you. That is especially so for Alita: Battle Angel, since you see the titular Alita (Rosa Salazar) up close for most of the movie. The animation and execution are top notch — but the character design for Alita is fatally flawed, leading to an uncomfortable experience for the entire film.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Alita’s introduction seems innocuous enough. When she’s discovered, she’s a damaged cyborg that has been switched off. All we see are a head and a fragment of a torso, and her eyes are closed. But it’s when she’s rebuilt and given new life by Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), that her appearance swiftly devolves into uncanny valley territory. Her eyes flutter open, and we see how inhumanly large they are. Sure, they are definitely attractive and desirable eyes in an anime or a manga. But when everyone else around her is human, her eyes look like the stuff of nightmares. Her limbs look too frail to even support her own weight, yet they’re perfectly capable of severing the limbs of opponents who are ten times her size.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

This prevents us from ever truly empathising with Alita. And that’s a pity, because her journey of self-discovery is quite intriguing once you get past the incredibly slow beginning. The amnesiac cyborg doesn’t regain all of her memories at once, instead recalling them in small flashes. Along the way, she fights her way to love, family, and a recovery of true identity. Information is parsed out in just the right quantities to get you to want to know what happens next, and you feel like you’re on this journey alongside Alita… at least until you get another close-up shot of her and her nightmare fuel eyes again.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

But if you’re a fan of Gunnm, the anime and manga series it is based on, then you’re probably more interested to see how the action sequences play out. They are, in a word, spectacular. Since the character is effectively a CGI superhuman, she can perform CGI superhuman feats of extraordinary speed and strength, so much so that she’s virtually invincible by the end of the film, when she acquires all her upgrades. The sets and background of the post-apocalyptic world of Alita: Battle Angel are also amazingly evocative, and convey this sense of dreary misery and the hopelessness that pervades Alita’s world.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

By the end of the movie, Alita is nigh unstoppable. This takes away a little of the tension, since you know that she will win every fight that she engages in. But far worse is the huge, intentional cliffhanger that the movie ends with, a dangling loose end that is so in your face that they might as well have put “To Be Continued” or “There Is A Sequel Coming”. If there’s anything wrong with Alita: Battle Angel’s plot, it’s that it so desperately wants to give birth to a sequel that it cannibalises its own story and villain so that there’s something else for Alita and the audience to look forward to in the next (but not confirmed) Alita: Battle Angel movie.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Alita: Battle Angel also lacks some sort of central premise or theme to hang the entire film on. Sure, it’s a movie about a powerful warrior cyborg who’s lost her memories, but that doesn’t say much for the emotional impact of the film. It seems to be about love… then it isn’t. It seems to be about parent-child relationships… but that’s forgotten halfway. It seems to be about freedom and liberation… but that’s a secondary or tertiary theme at best. There’s something about the emancipation of women in there, but that’s if you’re really stretching.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Alita: Battle Angel wows with fantastic fights and a fairly intriguing Act Two. But the eponymous character hovers on the cusp of being human but not quite, not with her creepy anime-style proportions. If the film wants the sequel that it so desperately and blatantly craves for, then perhaps it would be worthwhile to revisit Alita’s character design so that she looks more like a human and less like a terrifying immigrant from an anime world.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? Ok.

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? Definitely not.

Score: 2.9/5

Secret ending? No, but it ends on such a painfully dangling cliffhanger that it doesn’t need one.

Running time: 122 minutes

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Alita: Battle Angel is a post-apocalyptic action film that is based on the manga and anime series, Gunnm (also known as Battle Angel Alita).

The film revolves around a powerful amnesiac cyborg that awakens in an era that is completely unfamiliar to her. She must discover who she is and her place in the new world, but a mysterious omnipresent threat looms over her. Along the way she discovers love, friendship, and a new passion.

Alita: Battle Angel is directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. It stars Rosa Salazar (motion capture and voice for Alita), Christoph Waltz (Dr Dyson Ido), Jennifer Connelly (Dr Chiren), Mahershala Ali (Vector), Ed Skrein (Zapan), Jackie Earle Haley (Grewishka), and Keean Johnson (Hugo). It is rated PG-13.

Alita: Battle Angel opens in cinemas:
– 5 February, 2019 (Singapore)
– 5 February, 2019 (Malaysia)
– 5 February, 2019 (Philippines) 

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Marcus Goh is a scriptwriter, having written for popular shows like “Lion Mums”,  “Crimewatch”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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