Review: 'Alita: Battle Angel' is entertaining, but its script falls short

by James Cronin | 3/1/19 2:16am

“Alita: Battle Angel” is the latest in the line of big budget, young adult sci-fi films to not do well critically or commercially. Following in the footsteps of the “Divergent” and “Maze Runner” trilogies, I felt like “Alita” tried too hard to recreate the success of “The Hunger Games.” While it might have worked in 2012, I think that today’s audiences are bored of the generic “chosen one” teenaged protagonist who must fight to overthrow a dystopian government, all while having to deal with a ham-fisted romantic subplot that does nothing but drag the plot down. That being said, I did enjoy this movie. 

When I watch a movie, I usually go in with certain expectations. If it’s the latest “Transformers” movie, I’m going in just looking for mindless entertainment. If it’s a potential Oscar contender, I’m going to look at it from a more critical view. “Alita” falls into the former category, which makes it a much easier movie to review because all I have to do is ask myself, “Was I entertained?” For this movie, the answer is … sometimes. This movie is a very mixed bag. It has fantastic action unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, beautiful CGI and an interesting, fully realized sci-fi world teeming with life. In the moments where those aspects were front and center, I was having an absolute blast, staring at the movie screen with my mouth agape, going “woah” in unison with everyone else in the theater. However, it also had some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen in a movie, baited a sequel way too much and had a terrible romantic subplot, all of which limited my enjoyment. 

The action in this movie is easily the best part of the film. In a world where basically everyone is a cyborg, and where the protagonist is a cyborg trained specifically for fighting, the ultra-fast, clean and calculated fight scenes are something to behold and a testament to what filmmakers are able to achieve nowadays with special effects. This also includes any scene where they show the futuristic blood sport of motorball, which was a breathtaking visual spectacle. I found myself having a difficult time caring about any scene without action.

The main reason for that is the script, which was co-written by James Cameron. Cameron has wanted to make this movie for over 20 years and, supposedly, was very passionate about doing this movie justice, even going so far as giving leading actress Salazar “a 600-page document of notes” on the character. Sadly, however, I don’t think his script achieved that goal. Filled with exposition, odd wording, and phrases and characters who don’t do much of anything, Cameron’s script would have completely ruined the movie if the action wasn’t so good. Also, toward the end of the film, it felt as if the writers were more interested in setting up a sequel than they were with wrapping up the movie’s story, which annoyed me, especially since there’s a good chance this movie won’t get a sequel because it hasn’t been doing so well commercially.

This movie stars Rosa Salazar as the titular Alita, and it features Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali. The performances, like everything else in Alita, are a mixed bag, but a lot of that has to do with the script. Salazar and Waltz do a fantastic job; the father-daughter dynamic they had between them was palpable and helped to elevate moments that would have been weak otherwise. Mahershala Ali plays the “bad” guy in this movie, and he does a serviceable job — I mean, it’s Mahershala Ali, the guy is amazing in everything he’s in. But the reason I say “serviceable” is because, again, as a result of the weak script, I found that his character could have been played by literally anyone who could manage a mildly intimidating and mysterious presence. Jennifer Connelly also delivers a solid performance but, through no fault of her own, she didn’t really have much to do, and I wasn’t sold on her flimsy character arc — she was just kind of there.

This movie also stars Keean Johnson as Alita’s love interest, and any time he appeared on screen, there was a steep dip in quality. This might be unduly harsh, but it was as if the casting director just randomly chose the most bland, non-offensive Disney channel original movie reject they could find and told him to show up on set on the first day of shooting without even auditioning. Yes, the script shares responsibility for the awful romantic subplot and for the character’s generic lines, but his acting did not help.

It’s very easy to take a fine movie and point out its flaws while forgetting to praise the things it does right. “Alita: Battle Angel” is a fine movie with some problems that still manages to have a lot of entertainment value. While the script might not have been the greatest, the action and CGI was, and I left the theater thoroughly satisfied with the eight dollars and two hours of my Saturday afternoon I spent watching this film, and I’d easily spend that again if this movie ever gets a sequel.

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