While there are many franchises and story ideas that have been successfully adapted to the screen as feature films; thousands throughout the years, there are and inevitably always will be, epic flops that beg the question ‘why was this even made?’ One classic example of this that I experienced recently was Alita: Battle Angel.
The film is an origin story –without being presented as such- telling the tale of a decapitated, yet still functional cyborg (Rosa Salazar) that is found by an engineer/bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and given a new body. Alita, as the engineer calls her, then spends the rest of the movie learning about her surroundings and trying to peace together fragments of an identity that she can’t remember, but which clearly involves kicking a lot of butt!
Alita already had a strike against it for a certain audience because it’s an anime that’s been taken by Hollywood, Westernised and flung to the masses. I have not seen the anime and indeed knew nothing about the character before walking into the cinema, so I’m not here to bitch about that aspect. I am here to talk about the cinematic experience it offered… which was not good. I actually came out of the cinema feeling angry!
The initial appeal of Alita was the idea of this strong female lead and the fact that the movie is a heavily CGI-driven feature showcasing a science-fiction dystopian society a la ‘80s sci-fi flicks like Total Recall, Blade Runner, or even Soylent Green. The computer magic of the movie is definitely worthy of praise, despite being absolutely everywhere. The design of Alita, once you get used to the Instagram-filtered big eyes is actually really sleek and beautiful: money well spent, and what’s particularly nice about the entire film is that the CGI itself is a continuous aesthetic that looks really good and creates a fairly genuine feel for the world it’s showing. The class systems of the world are quite impressively depicted in the shift from sleek and shiny CGI architecture to shoddy, janky slums of older technological generation and to give credit where it is due, the film’s computer generated characters and environments create a very full world and good voyeuristic experience.
Sadly, this is where the praise ends. While Alita looks like a cool movie, it suffers from candy wrapper syndrome: where the packaging looks great, but there is something boring and without nourishment inside. Like many anime-turned-movies, games-turned-movies, and comic book-turned-movies, the film is completely let down by its writers, producers, director etc making a fan movie rather than a movie for the fans. Quite often, watering down a much-loved franchise to get butts in seats just doesn’t cut it and Alita is a classic example of this. The story is substandard and boring, the characters are not particularly interesting in any way, and therefore we don’t get any emotional payoff when one triumphs and another fails, and a lot of potential points of interest are either not explained at all or merely hand-waved away with ‘because science-fiction’.
But the major bugbear that myself and others like me will have with this film is that it creates the worst cinematic experience, because you come away feeling cheated. Alita is an origin story, no doubt there is intent have more movies follow it, but at no point in the film are there any cues to prime you for that way of thinking. Instead, we’re waiting for an epic battle and dramatic third act, which we don’t get! There is absolutely no narrative payoff at the end of this film and this is what causes you to come away feeling like you’ve been had.
Newsflash movie makers, no one likes this feeling!
And so Alita: Battle Angel joins films such as The Golden Compass in the barracks of movies that just have you wanting to punch someone at the very end.