Monday, February 18, 2019

Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

I'm having trouble answering what should be a relatively simple question about Alita - I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's discuss my initial reaction to the movie.

I freaking loved it.

Visually, this thing is incredible. We're talking one of the most beautifully realized sci-fi settings populated with incredibly bizarre superhuman characters ever put on film. The trailers give an accurate taste of what's in store, but there's a lot more where that came from. This movie is a joy to watch.

As for the story and character relationships... well... those are so bad you may find yourself laughing at major emotional moments. It tries to package the excitement and world-building inside a serious dramatic epic, and it fails. Miserably.

And since we're on the subject of technical flaws, the tone is a mess, too. The movie features several moments that should, logically speaking, be horrific and shocking. We're talking about kills that would normally be relegated to hard-R cinema but the light, colorful world combined with lack of character development just makes them seem, well, fun.

Which, honestly, is why they're not a bigger problem. There's a massive disconnect between what's happening and how it's supposed to feel, but instead of being alienating, it's just sort of popcorn entertainment. To a critic, that's a serious issue; to the audience, it's more fluff to enjoy.

Same goes for the movie's disjointed, overstuffed narrative. There are characters introduced who quietly vanish from the story, deep relationships that materialize out of thin air, and major plot elements given little to no depth or explanation. Hell, there's an entire separate movie's worth of story built around "Motorball" that's crammed awkwardly into a quarter of this film's run time. I'm sure it's lifted from the source material, but it doesn't really serve a point here.

Again, you won't care. Technically, the Motorball stuff should have been cut, since it adds nothing to the narrative or the main character's arc, but the sequences are engaging and fun to watch.

It's tempting to summarize Alita as, "All style, no substance," and wrap this review up, but I think that might be selling this a little short. While the movie mostly feels like the world's best fan film, there's one aspect that feels artistic, and that's the visual storytelling. Alita's got a conventional plot with a generic love story and all that, and it's disposable. Going off of the lines being recited, the main character has no real depth. But when she fights (or hell, just practices, moves, or even looks around), the movie conveys emotion, excitement, and even development through motion. It doesn't so much build to a comprehensive personality, but does make her feel iconic, which is a more impressive feat, anyway. And that leads us back to where I started, the question I was having a really hard time resolving.

Is this a good movie?

I honestly don't know. Maybe it depends how we define the term. Elements typically used as litmus tests for "good movies" - character relationships, structure, and tone - are all areas where Alita drops the motorball. But the visuals alone are worth the price of admission, and the construction of the action sequences (of which there are numerous) is awe inspiring.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether this is a good movie ahead of its time or a bad movie that's cool enough to forgive its failings: either way, it's a hell of an experience you owe it to yourself to see on the big screen.