What’s on? Ask Major Tom. It rhymes too, so you know it’s true. He enjoys all kind of movies, except maybe not sport movies but Field of Dreams was okay. He won’t look for terrible CGI or inconsequential plot holes, nor will he ever mention that you can’t hear lasers in space. He just enjoys movies for what they are and will tell you as much.
I was invited to watch an early preview of Alita: Battle Angel the other night. I didn’t immediately write something about it because I wanted to see what everyone else thought first – I had an opinion, but it felt wrong. I hate being wrong, and what if I’d missed something important? But opinions can’t be wrong, so here’s mine anyway.
The technical stuff that matters is that the movie is produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau, and directed by Robert Rodriguez. James Cameron and someone called Laeta Kalogridis did the screenplay. I say it like that because you may not know that Laeta Kalogridis also helped create the excellent Altered Carbon on the Netflix – plus some other good things that you can use Google to look up.
Director Robert Rodriquez has an inconsistent catalogue. He’s done fun stuff like Machete Kills and amazing work like Sin City, and then there’s… Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. It’s like he has a bad movie or two before a good one, and very rarely a special one. Alita: Battle Angel is somewhere in between – a decent one, but not an excellent one. And say what you like about producer and writer James Cameron, but he knows how to make money from movies. While people sometimes complain that he’s not that creative, I disagree – you don’t build a world like Pandora if you’re not creative (if you think blue aliens are creative – ed). With this mixed track record, Alita was always going to be an interesting ride.
Before watching the movie, I read the first two Alita comics, and then skimmed the last few I could find, just to get some perspective (and also did it to appear smart and well-informed). And I do really like how the movie sometimes replicates iconic panels from the comic – of course all in good taste and very faithful to the original material. Respectful is a good way to think about it.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The story looks like this – Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds a robot core (partial torso and head) on a junk pile. This turns out to be Alita (Rosa Salazar), an extraordinary human-robot hybrid who can’t remember where she came from or who it/she is. It’s an intriguing premise, and soon enough, stuff happens, Alita unlocks some powers and has to deal with bad guys, and has a romantic thing for a boy, and plays in a cool futuristic sport called motorball. I’m stopping this here to avoid spoilers because this movie is only coming out on Valentine’s Day. It’s kind of a cool movie for that date night, by the way. There’s some kissing and a heart.
The movie mostly follows the comic pretty closely but makes a few questionable deviations from the original. The whole daughter thing is unnecessary, for example, and it also crams in far too much from the comics into the movie’s limited time frame. I can understand why some things were done, but not all of the things. The other issue is that it can be hard to keep up with who is doing what and why are they doing it, and the movie sometimes jumps to scenes that feel like they should mean something but really don’t – or, at least, not yet. Eventually everything makes sense, but how you get there will be confusing. And in taking a long convoluted route to get to some plot points, they kind of miss others. Alita goes from an innocent child not knowing what an orange is, to giving a speech in a bar full of killers almost too quickly, and it just feels a little off. Some of the dots you’re asked to connect are perhaps too far apart, but the movie is self-aware here and there, so this is easy to forgive.
That aside, however, nothing can touch the action sequences in the movie. Rosa Salazar embodies Alita’s uncanny digital double with not only some exceptional voice acting, but also the motion capture performance. It helps to have a real person behind the CGI, and you’ll quickly forget that you’re looking at a character that doesn’t exist.
The world is a vibrant mix of The Fifth Element’s gaudy extravagance and Star Wars’ Mos Eisley space port sleaze, with Blade Runner’s gloomy Los Angeles but without the gloom. If that makes sense. Some of the world story relies on your acceptance that the trade of robot parts and sticking them in/on and around humans is an everyday occurrence, but that’s not so unimaginable, is it? It’s a sci-fi trope for a reason.
The eight people (nine now) who know the comics will be impressed, but will also complain about a few things. Don’t listen to them. It’s a decent adaptation that’s only slightly let down by a few things you can easily overlook if you’re just out for some good IMAX fun.