I realize that “Based off the hit Manga” is probably just as likely to be box office poison and/or a critical failure as “Based off the hit Teen Novel” or “Based off the hit Video Game”, but I’ve always liked to give movies the benefit of the doubt. We’ve all been burned by trailers before, both in the best and worst of ways, so it’s always best to try and approach a film with an open mind and an open heart.
I have not always done this. Usually, for me, my weakness is getting hyped. I get too excited for something that looks cool or looks like it’s going to hit all those movie sweet spots I love. I was hopeful that the Assassin’s Creed movie would be good, but I heard it was awful. I thought Crimes of Grindelwald would be good, and I was ultimately disappointed after the spectacle had faded.
Probably the worst one lately was Mortal Engines. This was a movie I was sooooo excited for. I love steampunk, and so when I saw the overall look and feel of the movie, I was excited. The fact that the lead was a determined girl with some serious trauma and not traditionally attractive (cos big ass scar on face) interested me. Hugo Weaving starring as a bad guy is always a plus, and then seeing Peter Jackson’s name attached to it (as a producer, but still), I was completely sold! I was excited!
And then I watched it.
I mentioned this during the Best & Worst Films of 2018 article, but fuck that was bad. It’s worst crime was that it was boring, but it also seemed to have a problem with identity and pacing, as it shoved several books into one two hour film and the director seemed desperate to disassociate the film from its steampunky roots.
But hey, I hear you say, wasn’t this review about Alita: Battle Angel?
Yes, I’m getting to that.
Because I got hyped for Alitafor the same reasons I got hyped for Mortal Engines. The names attached to it (Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron), the grand spectacles with impressive CGI, a favourite actor of mine playing a bad guy (this time it’s Ed Skrein). But I did try to hold my hopes in reserve a little. Or, at least, Pinkie tried to mitigate my expectations. He and I predicted thatAlita was either going to be spectacular or a horrific failure. If it turned out to be the latter, Pinkie didn’t want to see me horribly disappointed like I was back when we watched Mortal Engines.
Thankfully for the both of us, Alita: Battle Angel was the former!
This film thrilled us, it excited us, it astonished us. It was a real adrenaline rush throughout with a ton of character and heart.
- Is it realistic? Does it work? Does it flow? Is it consistent to the character speaking? Does it serve a purpose beyond just exposition?
- Is there depth? If not, is there at least some level of intrigue?
- Does it make sense? Is it easy to follow the sequence of events? If there is no narrative, does the game’s basic sequence make sense?
- If there’s a point, is it made and is it made well?
- Is the music something I’d want to hear again?
- Does it suit the work? Enhance the experience? Or is it inappropriate and distracting?
- Does the actor succeed in making the character feel like a person?
- Does the actor succeed in making the character sympathetic and likeable? Or does the character succeed in making you hate them?
- Does the overall performance achieve what was intended?
- Special effects
- Are they well done? Do they fit the movie? Do they distract from the film?
- Does it help to enhance the storytelling? Is it interesting to look at? Does it make you experience the events instead of just watching them?
- Do they fit the film? Do they look good? Do the costumes suit the characters wearing them?
- Set design
- Do the sets fit the film? If it’s a period piece, are they accurate? Are they well-balanced and pleasing to look at?
Without further ado, let’s get on with this, shall we?
Explaining everything would take forever, so I’ll just make a really quick summary. Basically it’s about a robot girl (with a human brain) given a new lease on life thanks to a kind but sad robot doctor known as Ido. The girl, named Alita after Ido’s dead daughter, starts learning about her new environment. She doesn’t remember anything of her past life, but slowly comes to discover that getting into life-or-death fights seems to trigger her memories, which reveal she was some kind of ultra-elite fighter. She makes friends and enemies, and even falls in love. She also figures out that her mission in life is to bring down the shady ruler of the floating city of Zalem, Nova.
A lot of stuff happens. Alita becomes a motorball (best sport ever) champion, makes friends with a Hunter Warrior (bounty hunter) with robot dogs briefly, loses the love of her short life, and gets to see Jai Courtney gear up in a giant metal body (Jai Bless).
If you want more detail, go watch the movie!
Considering I started this review comparing it to Mortal Engines, let’s get some other little comparisons out of the way.
Starting with the main characters: Alita is better in every way. Hester Shaw, while visually quite an interesting character with some potential to be even a little iconic-looking, was bland. So so…so bland. She had a clichéd plot with clichéd motivations, which aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves, but nothing was really done to make the cliché interesting or new. She was just a protagonist with plot armour who wanted revenge cos dead parent…and that’s it. The most interesting thing about her, besides the massive scar on her face, would be her flirtation with suicide, but that was barely discussed and glossed over so quickly you kind of forget it happened.
Alita, on the other hand, is incredibly visually interesting. I can’t believe how good her CGI is. I was a little worried the big eyes would be super distracting, but it looks so good that after looking at her for a while, everyone with normal sized eyes looks weird. On top of that, she has incredible character and you see her grow and morph as the minutes progress. You begin with her being a very young girl, both in mind and body, as she’s discovering this new world and where she fits in it. Then, after her first major failure she gets a total upgrade. Her body becomes more mature, her mind becomes more mature, while still holding some of its naïveté. She’s an all or nothing kind of girl, she either trusts and loves you fully or she doesn’t. That part of her never changes, but she learns how to spot bullshit better.
We get into real detail about her character that you just don’t get from Hester Shaw. I mean, what’s Hester Shaw’s favourite food? I dunno. What’s Alita’s? Well, first she thought it was oranges, but then she had chocolate and that’s like all she wants to eat now.
Alita ends up getting almost literal plot armour when she gets her upgraded body, built to be an advanced weapon, but by this point the movie has done such a good job at making you care about the other people in her life, like Dr. Ido and his assistant and her boyfriend, Hugo, that even if she becomes basically indestructible, she can still be seriously hurt. Also, Ido makes it clear that if her superbody gets damaged, he literally can’t fix it because the tech is too advanced for him.
And here’s where we get into the side characters. Mortal Engines also had a boyfriend character, Tom, but he’s pretty bland too. He’s a poor boy who dreamed of being a pilot. Cool. Also, he’s an archeologist. I mean, that’s interesting, but that part kind of goes away after a while. There’s also a badass mentor character, Anna Fang, the villain, Thaddeus Valentine, and the father figure, Shrike. These last three were probably the most fun to watch and I kind of wish the whole movie was just about them.
Oh yeah, there was also Valentine’s other daughter, but who gives a shit? The movie certainly didn’t.
I can find parallels to all these characters in Alita. You want badass mentor? Well, we get flashbacks to Gelda, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Alita’s trainer when she was a soldier. You want father figure? Take everyone’s favourite Inglorious Basterds character, Christoph Waltz. You want a fun, memorable villain who looks like they’re having fun? Have five of them! You’ve got Ed Skrein playing the sleazy and vindictive bounty hunter, Zapan; you’ve got Mahershala Ali as the influencer and crime boss, Vector; you have Jennifer Connelly as the cold and brokenhearted ex-wife of Ido, Dr. Chiren; you have (and this surprised the fuck out of Pinkie and me) Rorschach playing the massive, meaty cyborg goon, Grewishka; and finally you have Edward Norton playing the elusive Nova. He literally has like zero lines in the movie but he’s probably one of the coolest characters.
I mean, I’m sorry, and I love Hugo Weaving and all, but those four boys act his ass out of the PARK. All four of these villains are sooooooooooooooo much fun to watch! Nova is just cool because he’s so secret. He only ever speaks through either Grewishka or Vector, but you can always tell when he’s taken over their bodies. Vector on his own is both an irredeemable scumbag and very sympathetic. I mean, yeah, he sends kids out to cut up cyborgs and steal their body parts, but he also has a psychotic dictator occasionally take over his body and mind and constantly lives in fear of being murdered by this guy. I might be a bit of a dick too. Grewishka is a guy you love to hate (fucking dog killer) and his death is incredibly satisfying.
And then there’s my favourite, Zapan. Why is he my favourite? Cos it’s Ed Skrein. I’m not gonna lie, he’s just too much fun to watch. You can tell he loves his job and he is revelling in how much of a bastard Zapan is. Doesn’t hurt that he’s also got a really nice butt and the leather pants they made him wear really show it off. Nightwing has a contender for his best booty crown.
In all seriousness, he was fun to watch. He was slimy, he was intimidating, and his comeuppance was wholly deserved and felt SO satisfying. It was just so perfect, and it let Rosa Salazar be a real fuckin’ badass.
When it comes to father figures, I actually have a hard time choosing who I like better. I mean, on one hand you have Christoph Waltz and on the other you have Stephen Lang. There’s also the fact that Stephan Lang’s Shrike was the best character in Mortal Engines. I’d be willing to watch the movie again for only two things, and one of them is him. Shrike was not only hilariously badass (like, he was so cold and determined and Terminator-ish that Pinkie and I couldn’t help but laugh with delight) and he was the most heart the movie had. We were both genuinely broken up when he died.
Dr. Ido is a sweetheart and a really good character too, but in a cast full of incredibly interesting and lovable characters, Christoph Waltz isn’t my top pick. That’s not to say he’s a weak member of the cast – far from it – but it’s not like he drags the movie up with his performance. He fits in perfectly with the world, and it’s nice to see him play a good guy and not bite the dust.
And when it comes down to who is best boy, Hugo or Tom, Hugo wins easy. He’s not your generic good guy and he’s not your average love interest. I mean, he kinda is, but he’s a bit of an Aladdin type. He’s the thief with a heart of gold, and his devotion and love for Alita is genuinely heartwarming and sweet. He’s a supportive, nice guy every step of her journey (even when he’s not so nice to others). He really redeems himself from his shady past and his death was sad. I didn’t think they’d actually kill him off, to be honest, but I’m kind of glad they had the guts to do it in this movie.
Now I have no idea if either of these movies are technically “good” adaptations since I haven’t read either of their source materials, however I can at least say that it looks like Robert Rodriguez did a good job of adapting some panels from the manga (I had a look at the books the last time I went to Indigo).
I’m not sure how many volumes of the manga made it into the movie, but they managed to get enough in that the film felt full but not so much that it felt bloated (wish I could say the same for Mortal Engines, but no. That felt every bit like they crammed all four books of the series in there). They also ended it on the perfect note: an emotional high because of Hugo’s death, but also in a place where if we never succeed in getting any sequels, any fan of the film can be happy to know that the film and story feels complete. Sure, it’s a bit of a cliffhanger, but you know that Alita is going to make it to Zalem and string up Nova for everything he’s done. It’s like the ending to the first Matrix movie: you don’t need a sequel to know that the good guys are gonna rain down some hell. In the Matrix’s case we really didn’t need the sequels, but I wouldn’t be upset to find out if we got another movie or two out of Alita.
Pinkie’s favourite thing about the movie was the incredible world building. Every minute of this movie is oozing with personality and you really get a sense of what Iron City is all about. It’s vibrant and overcrowded and multicultural and unfortunately riddled with crime. It’s full of good people and bad and people somewhere in between. It’s full of passionate, good natured folk who just want to help and people who are selfish and will crawl over anyone to get what they want. And Motorball is probably the best sport ever.
The world just felt so alive and, massive amounts of crime aside, I really want to go there and look around at everything. It doesn’t hurt that the special effects in this movie are fucking amazing, but we’ll cover that later.
Also, because this is a criticism I’ve read quite a bit from those hacks that Rotten Tomatoes likes to arbitrarily assign either fresh or rotten scores to for reasons, apparently some people find this movie confusing? Unless you’re completely unfamiliar with sci fi or fantasy, I’m not entirely sure how anyone got lost. I mean, yeah, this world has history, and there’s mention of the great war with the URM (United Republic of Mars) and a Fall three hundred years in the past, but it doesn’t really matter to the plot. It does, but it’s not like you need to take notes. It’s just…like…pay attention to the movie and you’ll be fine. Geez.
Dialogue – A-
Development – A+
Coherence – A+
Conciseness – A
Fucking great. The best track is definitely Motorball. I’ve actually been listening to it on repeat as I write this review, to be honest.
I really enjoyed the music. Not entirely sure what to say beyond that. It helped pump up the scenes that needed pumping, and it helped add emotional gravitas to the scenes that needed you to feel things. It did everything a good film score ought to do, and it pumped out an exciting and memorable tune or two. The tracks aren’t quite as memorable as something like the Pirates of the Caribbean theme or anything, but Motorball is definitely something I could pop on and warmup to before a workout. Or listen to on repeat while I write.
Interestingly enough, the composer for Alita, Tom Holkenborg, also composed the score for Mortal Engines. That film had decent music that certainly fit every scene but didn’t have a memorable track I can think of to go out and seek to listen to again.
The pop song tie-in, Swan Song by Dua Lipa, is also very catchy. I hear it a lot at my local gym and it is good pump up music. It also fit in really well with where the movie ended, keeping my excitement and adrenaline up after we see Alita directly challenge Nova.
Memorability – A-
Tone – A+
Everyone does a fantastic job on set. I have literally never heard of Rosa Salazar before this movie, but now I look forward to seeing her more in the future! She did a fantastic job. She carried this movie like a freakin’ champ and she gave Alita so much personality. This was a role that was in serious danger of some Mary Sue shit, but she made it all her own. This might be the first time I’ve seen a female lead (or a lead period) laugh realistically.
That might sound weird, but I’m serious. Outside of a comedy or something where lead actors are allowed to be less than perfect, I’m not sure I’ve seen to many films where the leads get to behave like people. If you’re supposed to be sexy or badass, you’re rarely also a total goofball who moans when eating oranges and chocolate or makes embarrassingly not-quite-loud-enough whoops at a sports game or genuinely laughs the kind of laugh you do around close friends instead of out in public. It was refreshing and really helped to make Alita seem like a real person instead of a character on a movie screen.
I already mentioned how Ed Skrein is living it up as Zappan, but the other villains look like they’re having fun too. Mahershala Ali is always amazing, and I had no idea Jennifer Connelly could look so scary. You don’t really see much of Edward Norton, but the few seconds of screen time he gets he really gets to put on the most punchable face and it’s great.
The most outstanding villain performance is probably Rorschach as Grewishka. I honestly didn’t know that it was Jackie Earle Haley. He didn’t look at all like himself and his voice was completely unrecognizable. Thinking back on it now I can see how his facial expressions and general facial features were familiar, but after seeing it twice I honestly had no idea who it was.
All the acting was really good, come to think of it. Even the side characters were all so full of personality. The casting director and Rodriguez should really be commended for their work.
One thing I would like to address here though would be another spot of criticism. This time it was one that Pinkie found. We plan on addressing it in full at a later date, but Pinkie found an article complaining about the casting of Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Hugo’s friend Tanji. The writer of the article believed the casting was racist and that the role should have gone to an Asian actor, despite the fact that as far as Pinkie and I can tell (and from what we’ve seen of fans of the Alita manga who spoke out against this writer), Tanji is probably while. I say probably because his face is never actually shown in the manga (again, as far as I know) and he has blonde hair. In any case, Tanji’s race really doesn’t matter and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is fucking adorable. I loved him in Bumblebee and he was really good in this movie too, so fuck you if you think hiring a talented Dominican-born man is racist because “well it’s a manga SO EVERYONE MUST BE JAPANESE”. Just fuck you.
Keep an eye out for a longer rant on this topic at a later date.
Realistic – A+
Emotional – A
Effective – A+
Now these were spectacular. A million billion times better than Replicas, which makes me very happy.
This was another thing that Alita has over Mortal Engines. You’d think with someone like Peter Jackson producing it they’d have done a better job with the effects but…nope. They were bad. Probably the best sequence that Mortal Engines had was the opening scene (which was a majority of the teaser trailer, if any of you remember). Alas, the scene where London gobbles up Hester’s small town was the film’s action highlight, and the only other reason I’d watch the film again next to Shrike. Methinks they busted their whole budget on that scene then had nothing left for Shrike’s model or anything else really.
Alita,however, knew how to spend its money. Who knew Robert Rodriguez could work magic with a budget as well as without one! Alita herself looks amazing (she has pores!) and the city always looked real and vibrant, even the distance shots. The URM ships, all the tech, and most breathtakingly the motorball scenes.
Motorball is really where the effects got to shine. The human faces plastered onto the insane robotic CGI bodies moving at a million miles an hour, beating the shit out of each other and racing for the small metal ball is not only exhilarating to watch, but it’s nice to look at. It does a great job at tricking your eye. Does everything look 100% real? No. But you still feel every impact. You can tell which players are heavier and which are lither, which attacks pack a bigger punch and so on. And, man, do you really fucking feel it when one of the players has Alita by the head and is grinding her into the asphalt as they speed across the track, only minutes after she’s told you this new body lets her experience some kind of tactile sensation (when she has her first kiss with Hugo). I couldn’t help but cringe.
I’m really impressed with how well they integrated all the robotic bodies with human faces. It just looks soooooo cool! And again soooooo much better than Replicas. I could cry.
CGI aside, the costumes were all great. I liked how easily you could tell the rich from the poor, the Zalemites from the Iron City dwellers, etc. I liked how the style was both casual and fairly mundane but also kind of stitched together, like the world really is dealing with a kind of post-apocalypse.
I can’t really say too much about the camerawork specifically, but it certainly did its job well. I can’t think of any particularly clever filmmaking tricks used, but there was nothing that ever took me out of the film.
And finally the set design. This is a little hard to talk about again because a lot of the time it’s really hard to tell whether or not what you’re looking at is practical or green screen, but things like Alita’s room, Hugo’s apartment, and Ido’s clinic all were very well dressed. Each of these settings have a very different style and it was clear a lot of thought was put into making these environments not only different, but also lived-in (or distinctly not lived in, as with the case of Alita’s room, which is almost clinically clean and tidy like some undisturbed shrine).
All in all, this movie is pretty to look at and that makes me happy. Pinkie too.
- Special Effects – A+
- Camerawork – A
- Costumes – A
- Set Design – A+
I’m so glad I saw this film in IMAX. There aren’t too many movies I’d say deserve that big of a screen, but Alita: Battle Angel is certainly one of them. I can’t wait to get my hands on the manga and start reading it, and I can’t wait for the movie to come out on DVD. I have this quirk where, when I really like something, I’ll watch/listen/read it a lot. Like, it doesn’t matter if it literally just blacked out for the credits, I’ll go back and play it from the beginning again immediately. I haven’t done that in a long time for a movie – mostly it was something I did when I was little – but I could definitely see myself having a “Me Day” where I sit with some snacks, wrapped up in a blanket, watching Alita two or three times.
It’s fun, it’s powerful, it’s uplifting, it’s heartbreaking (seriously, once you find out where those blood streaks on her face come from, you’ll understand). It’s one of the first films in a long time to really drag me in and forget I’m watching a movie. I love every second of it and I don’t even care if we get more.
Apparently there are two sequels yet to be greenlit, but considering how much money the movie is making there is a chance we’ll be seeing them in the future. If we don’t, honestly, I won’t be heartbroken. I mean, I love this world and I would enjoy seeing more of it, but this film ends on such a perfect note that if this is the only one we’ll ever get, I am perfectly satisfied. It doesn’t feel like a “Fuck you, read the manga” ending or like a total “Fuck you, wait for the sequel” ending. It sequel baits enough that you can expect more story, but it ends on the perfect note, with Alita directly challenging Nova, that you just know where the story will lead and that she’s ready to put his head on a pike.
This was a great movie-going experience and I’m glad I allowed myself to get hyped for this one.
FINAL GRADE: A+
More movie reviews will be coming soon! I’ll try not to drag my feet so much for the next one. We’re starting to get into Live-Action Disney season, with Dumbo coming out soon. Oh. Goody. I mean, all I’m hoping for from this remake is a distinct lack of hideously obvious, clearly-targeted-at-children racism (I’m lookin’ at you Jim Crows…Jesus Christ, Disney).
Until next time!
- Amazing lead; Rosa Salazar KILLS it!
- Great villains, especially Ed Skrein!
- Needs more Motorball