I made what has become a increasingly rare visit to the cinema last week, in the efforts to go and see Alita: Battle Angel. To go ahead and spoil this entire review for you: I didn’t really have any especially strong feelings towards the movie. It just seemed like one more CG heavy action flick to me, which has become the expectation for this genre of movie. The unfortunate result is that Alita struggled to stick in my mind on walking out, especially when I don’t really hold any reverence for the source material.
I was at the point where I didn’t feel like I had anything interesting to talk about in a blog like this afterwards afterwards, and came close to not writing anything at all. However, it was upon seeing the reactionary discourse to the film via social media that I realised there seemed to be some rather polarising views regarding the movie from fans, neutrals and critics. It was interesting to find myself smack in the middle of all things, agreeing with some things but baffled by other takes.
Upon reflection, the anime roots of Alita were very apparent. In its story tropes, its character designs and in tone. I was getting something out of this movie as a result that the old man reviewing the movie for print news probably would have missed out on. At the opposite end of this thought process though, there were people who’d be intimately knowledgeable about the source material and get far more out of this movie than I could hope to with my meandering knowledge of the medium.
For what felt like a first for me, I was looking in at what was apparently a very good adaptation of a “comic book” without really knowing anything about it. It felt like a unique learning experience as someone deep in the super hero craze, this was my opportunity to spy how the rest of the world feel for a change.
Familiar ground appeared beneath my feet despite my outsider perspective though, Alita bore all the hallmarks of a movie that was trying to pack just a little too much into its run time. If I had a problem with this movie, it would be that, during its two hour length, it felt meandering, slow to get to where it wanted to end up and felt directionless at times.
Otherwise the movie was strong though, I had no problem with the movie’s casting, nor its art design. We’re deep into the era of movies being set in beautiful shit holes, horrible slums which look stunning and engaging from a distance. The character design was great too. The common jokes revolving around Alita’s very anime looking eyes didn’t bother me. In a movie where the vast majority of characters have pretty gruesome looking body modifications, some oversized eyes were barely noticeable.
Instead, what was drawing my attention was something I find increasingly common in movies with James Cameron attached to them, I’m finding that movies are amazing visual spectacles, but come at the expenses of their characters. Alita herself is a badass super robot, one with a big heart and a really positive outlook on the world, despite her origins and being surrounded by scum and villainy in the present. Yet. despite her slow turn from a wide, wide eyed young girl to a hardened warrior, all of her development is centred around a romance that I couldn’t really invest myself in.
There is a simple teenage naivety to the relationship between Alita and Hugo. While she is overly trusting and easy to take advantage of, he is arrogant and overly assured that his actions won’t come back to bite him, until he suddenly feels like he has something to lose. It’s all painted in extremely broad strokes, in which the characters don’t every really feel like they have shades of grey to them.
Hugo seems like kind of a dirtbag almost right away, but Alita seems to ignore the mounting evidence towards this throughout the movie, even to the point where he betrays her and she still goes to him time and time again. Call me a hardened cynic, but there are limits to how trusting you can be in a world where people have sword hands.
I could nit pick all day though, it doesn’t change that there are a lot of people who did enjoy this movie. Not just people who have some connection to the manga either, I saw a lot of neutrals saying they enjoyed it too. The primary positive I was seeing coming from this camp of people was the fact that Alita was a powerful female lead, one that wasn’t sexualised at all throughout the length of the movie. No matter what I feel about James Cameron as a guy, his movies have a very positively progressive attitude toward their female leads.
But this, like with the praise gained from the manga fans, is a case of the movie doing one thing well, while the rest of the movie ends up being pretty scattershot. When taken as a whole, the movie still ends up being a mediocre action flick, one with some exceptional parts to pick out. I am forever telling people it’s okay to just like parts of a movie. But my face tenses up still when it’s taken too far and one good part suddenly makes the bad aspects of the movie invisible. It’s okay to like parts of a movie, but don’t try to fool people into thinking one good thing makes a mediocre movie amazing.
Inevitably, I have to make the comparison between this and my personal reaction to the movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as they grew and evolved. I’d forgive these movies for being lazy, uninspired or shallow, because I was finally seeing Thor or Doctor Strange on the big screen. I’d feel special for the references and deep pulls littered throughout the movie that I knew many other members of the audience would not get.
Watching Alita, I finally realised what they felt like from the outside. Without that extra added connection to the movie from the source material, it does feel like a pretty run of the mill action movie. No doubt there are some Marvel movies that are genuinely good without the prior knowledge, but they’ve had 20 attempts to get to get it just right. Going back now, those phase 1 movies are very hot and cold.
As much as I love Civil War or Winter Solider, they are ultimately big dumb action spectacles, just like Alita is. And while I’ll still argue that the romance between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is far better executed than the one we get in this movie, there’s still no shame in liking Alita for being having a strong female lead, or being a well executed adaptation. It just works to remind me that sometimes I need to take a step back, look objectively and realise that Doctor Strange and Thor are actually both pretty mediocre movies, as much as admiration as I have for them personally.