Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Sorely Misses Cameron’s Direction
After 20 years of false starts, Alita: Battle Angel finally makes its way onto the big screen. The manga adaptation has long been in development under James Cameron, but with Titanic, Avatar, and Avatar sequels taking priority, he seemingly never found the time to make this property come to life. So he passed the project onto someone else. That director. . . was Robert Rodriguez. Yes, the director of Spy Kids, Shark Boy & Lava Girl, Machete, Planet Terror, and Sin City was selected to pick up the mantle and carry James Cameron’s film over the finish line.
Hard to believe considering that Cameron is a well known perfectionist, and you can easily find examples of his exorbitant demands online. From The Terminator to Titanic to Avatar, Cameron is uncompromising. If he wants it, he gets it, which is why it comes as a surprise that Rodriguez was selected because … well, he’s… not really … on Cameron’s level. That’s not a slight on Rodriguez, the two have very distinct styles, but given Rodriguez’s track record, I don’t know how he landed this gig.
Questions immediately arose about who compromised where, who got final cut, and what creative liberties were taken. This is Cameron’s script with Rodriguez direction, and after seeing the film, it really should have been Cameron through and through. The film has a multitude of pros and cons that work on different levels of admiration and disappointment, but ultimately, Alita: Battle Angel leaves much to be desired.
After finding the partial remains of a cyborg, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) uses his skills to rebuild and name her Alita (Rosa Salazar). With no prior memory, she slowly learns what it means to be human as she interacts with those around her in Iron City. In doing so, she begins to piece together her opaque past, a past which draws the eyes of Vector (Merhershala Ali) and his band of mercenaries who know of Alita’s true potential.
The film is an adaptation of the famous manga, Gunnm, a manga that lasted for five years across nine volumes. With so much material to sift through, elements would naturally be cut from the single, 2 hour 22 minute film — which, might I add, was originally supposed to be 3 hours long in Cameron’s original script. Because of this, the film’s dealing in the origin arc of a larger story, an act one if you will, but that results in a very unsatisfying experience. Put simply, it’s incomplete. The entire film promises a grand stand off with Nova, the puppet master who lives in Zalem, the floating city above Iron City that holds the richest of the rich, but we never get any of that.
What is so disappointing is that it’s all false promises. A major arc in the film is not even resolved, clearly leaving the film open to a sequel, but at a reported $200 million budget, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to see the end unless the film is a hit over seas. So much time is spent on establishing these narrative beats, but they go unfulfilled. It’s wasted time that could have been used to develop other characters, relationships, or even cut the run time down, and for that reason, there’s a lot of bloat. In such a predicament, they could of gone with Cameron’s longer script and had a more complete narrative, or they could have gone shorter and just cut more parts with Nova instead of leading us down a road of empty promises.
The one arc that does receive attention is Alita’s. Alita wakes up with no memory and she spends a good portion of the film learning what it means to be human and finding her true identity. Through her relationships, she comes to know the value of personal connections, the pleasantries of life, and the value of simply existing, lessons well outside of her robotic origins that exclude her from such. Alita as a character is the most fulfilled component in the entire film. It is the prioritized arc, but as mentioned before, the neglected overarching one intrudes on it and ultimately detracts from what could have been even better.
And then there’s the biggest conundrum: Cameron not directing. Earlier, I mentioned how this film is oddly in the hands of Robert Rodriguez, and it really shows. Scenes take on an off putting quirkiness, performances are all over the place, and tone seems to be uneven throughout. Rodriguez’s direction hinders the film, especially when you know what a VFX heavy film can be if it were Cameron in the driver’s seat. We don’t know what was cut from the script, but if Cameron was in charge, I doubt he would have cut any of it prior to filming. Given the under baked arcs, you have to wonder if substance was cut for run time. To be clear, we’re only speaking in hypotheticals; the behind the scene inner workings of the film are unknown, but given the track records of both directors, we can make an educated guess as to who is at fault, and after seeing the film, it’s pretty clear direction emerges as an issue.
Visually, the film is great. Using the same technology that Cameron used on Avatar, the film shines in the VFX department, especially for the motion capture performances used to create the varied robots and cyborgs. In order to replicate the anime look of Alita, they used motion capture to render Rosa Salazar’s performance onto a computer model that more closely resembles the look and feel of the anime character. The achievement here is how it never quite falls into the uncanny valley. I mean, it’s pretty impressive that they can give this character massive eyes and have it not look totally bizarre. The action sequences, too, exhibit refined choreography and spectacle, but as noted in my Ready Player One review, how much success can be attributed to Rodriguez here as opposed to the VFX team is debatable, but I tip my hat none the less.
For such a massive budget, it’s interesting to see the film operate in the personal dealings of Alita. That being said, the film is an elongated first act origin story that clearly has aspirations for a sequel, but in those hopes, it left major arcs unresolved at the expense of the one we really care about. Without Cameron in the director chair, one can’t help but think about what could have been and why the film feels so unfulfilling when the credits roll.