In a few words: Slick, Futuristic Fun
Pros: Solid worldbuilding, refreshing and impressive action sequences, well-fleshed protagonist
Cons: Sequel-dependent and thus underwhelming plot
Themes: Humanity, Class Division
I went into Alita with the tempered expectations of one who’d read about the production troubles, middling early reviews and felt the general lack of enthusiasm for the film. Despite that, I chose to catch this on the “largest screen possible” as recommended by a number of critics, no less because James Cameron was involved in the project.
Overall, it was worth the $22 I forked out for the most premium screen in my country. Alita felt to me a good, even great, but incomplete story. The visuals and action set pieces were easily the best I’ve seen in awhile, a refreshing change from the “I punch you, you punch me, explosions, explosion” blockbuster fare of late, specifically the successful superhero films that have come to define the blockbuster formula in recent years. Alita is the hack-and-slash manga adapted slickly and stunningly to live-action form that I never knew I needed to be truly wowed by CGI again. Just the main character herself in a marvel to behold; a more or less fully CGI-ed Rosa Salazar who feels so uncannily real amongst the other characters, realer still even, with a powerful and committed performance by the actress to boot. Around the start of the film, when we first see Alita, we’re zoomed into her face, and somehow, her “large anime eyes” that have been the talk of the film blend perfectly with the rest of her life-like features. Beyond the already impressive work on realising the protagonist, the action sequences are truly amazing. The first real sequence, a fight in an alleyway, blew me away. It felt like a scene from a hack-and-slash game only possible within the confines of animation, but somehow, the filmmakers bring in to stunning, crisp real life. Not only did that first fight scene bring out Alita’s sheer badassery, it also introduced the possibilities of cyborg battles as I’ve never really seen before, with a definite attention to skills with a blade (or multiple blades) and body combat skills, as opposed to the usual reliance on this-and-that gun or such-and-such weapon. The outlawing on guns of any kind in Iron City, which is the setting of most of the film, meant that the subsequent action scenes continued this thrilling mode of combat. It was definitely refreshing to not have fights come down to an explosion or a shot fired from a gun of some sort, which I feel is a formula so abused I’m almost dulled towards such scenes when they occur.
The performances, I felt, were good. With three Oscar winners in major supporting parts, I guess this shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. Christoph Waltz was a believable father figure to Alita, Jennifer Connelly is nicely vicious and subsequently gives the movie some extra heart, while Mahershala Ali is a respectable villain. But of course, the main protagonist herself, Alita, is very well played. I found her to be a worthy comparison to Wonder Woman; she’s defined by her strength of will, bravery and importantly, her humanity. This makes for interesting analysis when we realise that she is a cyborg, yet her human qualities stand out in comparison to the human antagonists of the film, such as Vector, who is cold and ruthless in an almost mechanical way with his decisions. This perhaps offers commentary on the basis of what it means to be human; where one’s biological construct, in Alita’s case, a cyborg, but extended to the real world as a metaphor, should not confer onto them different standards of humanity.
Like Wonder Woman, the gender roles here are also flipped, with Keean Johnson playing Hugo, Alita’s sidekick and love interest who finds himself in the “damsel-in-distress” situation during a climactic sequence where Alita is the one rushing to save him. As he proclaims emphatically towards the end of a bar fight where Alita had been the one dealing out the punches, with Hugo watching her back, he’s “with her”, and not the reverse of “she’s with me”, a clear indication of Alita’s position of power in their relationship. Further it is made clear that she is physically superior to Hugo, with Hugo noting that she could easily disable him in a fight by “ripping out his arm and smacking (him) with the wet end”.
Refreshing gender role reversal aside, I enjoyed the Alita-Hugo story, though I feel that the emotional heft of their final scene together was unintentionally lessened by the somewhat awkward CGI (don’t want to spoil it completely, but this was the one time I thought the CGI looked a little clunky).
The rest of the plot as a whole however, is where Alita’s issues arise. As I mentioned earlier, I found this to be a good but incomplete film. I say this because the film had set up many plot points early in the film, and then reinforced them throughout, which logically would make one expect that these plot points reach a resolution at the close of the film. One, for instance, is the character of Nova, established quickly as the main antagonist, when he literally assumes control of his subordinates minds, including Vector’s on multiple occasions. This set Vector up as a pawn, albeit a powerful one, from the start, which made his defeat towards the end of the film feel like the defeat of a powerful and significant but secondary antagonist – Gogo in Kill Bill comes to mind for some reason – which then leaves the feeling of unfulfillment when one realises that the character of Nova had been set up purely for a sequel. Even Alita’s identity in relation to her history is also left overly unresolved – who is Michelle Rodriguez’s character and what happened to her? Another is the floating city of Zalem – we never get a good look into it despite seemingly every character talking about making it to Zalem as a key motivation. I suppose this could have been commentary of social and class boundaries, and how and impossible blockages can form, leaving those below having no chance of of even glimpsing what it’s like on top. Indeed, when Hugo and Alita get close to ascending towards Zalem near the end, they are met with dire consequences. While I thought the physical construct of the city (with Zalem literally floating above the citizens of Iron City) was a nice metaphor for class divide, I still wished we had learned more about the city above.
Essentially, the film leaves one feeling slightly cheated as the film comes to an end, as so many important plot points are seemingly saved for explanation in the sequel, and the only arc that really seemed to have a definite resolution was the Alita-Hugo one. What was shown in the film was good, but it felt like watching three quarters of a good movie, and then having the credits role with so many built-up things unaddressed. This pan-movie plot structure kind of brings to mind the disappointing Crimes of Grindelwald, which felt like the middle of a film with it’s lack of any real setup and resolution, merely being a filler for future installments. Of course, despite their somewhat similar and awkward structures, Alita was a good film, Crimes wasn’t. Yet it seems Crimes may yet get away with this sort of sequel-dependent plot structure, Alita may not. Because Alita really is asking for a sequel; the worldbuilding is solid and I was quickly immersed and invested in both the world and the fates of the characters. It would be a real waste if the story were left incomplete.
With that in mind, I truly hope Alita performs well enough to warrant a sequel. It NEEDS the sequel to complete its story. Perhaps, if combined with a second film – which assumedly completes the plot – it could really be a great story and work of cinema, because plot-wise, it simply doesn’t work as a standalone film, with too many boxes left unchecked and viewers like me left needing more.