Review: ‘Alita’ Has Terrific Action Set-Pieces, but It’s All Too Familiar
After spending years in development hell, the adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga series Gunnm, also known as Battle Angel Alita has finally arrived at cinemas. Long gestating to be helmed by James Cameron, the film never really took off because Avatar’s thundering success left the director too busy with the Na’vi, and the baton had to finally be passed on to Robert Rodriguez.
The class divide, the dystopian setting, the evil haves versus the heroic have-nots ― all those elements that Cameron dishes out so well. And to top it all, it has a corny romance at its core, worked over with a string of earnestly trite dialogues.
The film is about the titular character first introduced as a piece of junk, then as a cyborg who gets rebuilt by cybernetics specialist, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) who names her after his dead daughter. The world they live in is 500 years into the future, a dystopian society surviving in the aftermath of a great war. Where they live is called Iron City and resembles a junkyard, a confluence of humans and machines, all of whom aspire to reach Zalem, the floating city above, and a utopia of supposedly great things.
The script penned by Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis follows a typical young-adult narrative. Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no memory of her previous life, but whenever a fight ensues, she gets drawn into it, only to realise how she is the last of her kind, with her memory flashing bits and pieces of her valiant past self. The villain is a well-suited mysterious figure named Vector (Mahershala Ali).
Alita also comes of age, beginning with the discovery of how tasty oranges are and going all the way to the mouthy charms of her lover Hugo, played by Keean Johnson. This romance, syrupy and sincere in equal measure, drags the film into a hackneyed territory, but thankfully there are more subplots that come in. One deals with Iron City’s bounty hunters involving bloodless but exciting skirmishes, and the other with a sport that appears to be a redux of Rollerball with a gladiatorial mayhem. Both these subplots offer Rodriguez a chance to show off set-pieces that are clean in choreography, and furious in coherence.
One of the key elements that makes Alita: Battle Angel stand out is its insistence on the mythology that guns are not legal here. Which in turn renders all the combats into a war of arms, legs, and mechanical weapons like shining blades. And when Alita gets into her gravity-defying groove to punch, kick, and kill, the swift shifting of her limbs literally makes your hands come together to applaud her. Has the film managed to wipe out the ‘uncanny valley’ effect? Not entirely, but the big-eyed Alita does save the day.
Since we’re in the age of franchise products, it’s always heartening to see a new film engaging in the act of creating a new universe. But it also comes with its usual traps of information dumping, and sequel baiting. Alita: Battle Angel struggles to overcome both issues, though sadly finishing with an underwhelming end that’s supposed to be a set-up for the sequel.
But the fact of the matter is he is not Cameron. So you get the usual elements of Cameron’s world, but not the sudden burst of wonders that would make you squeal in delight. Call it a letdown, shall we?
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)