In December of 2017, the first trailer for “Alita: Battle Angel” hit the internet. Adapted from the iconic Japanese manga/anime series “Battle Angel Alita,” a live-action “Alita” movie was the decades-in-the-making dream of James Cameron’s (“Avatar”), and had the hype and mystique of a legitimate passion project from the acclaimed director. The film would tell the story of a discarded cyborg named Alita who is resurrected with no memories of her past and must embark on a journey to discover who — and what — she is. Then, the trailers dropped, and we were introduced to Alita’s giant CGI eyes that were met with unanimous distaste and generally made everyone uncomfortable, evoking the “uncanny valley” effect describing the uneasy feeling one gets when something is almost human-looking, but not quite. At this point, I had written off the film as an ambitious if misguided product of a visionary director with nobody around to tell him “no.”
Having now seen the film, I was only sort of right. Make no mistake, “Alita: Battle Angel” is flawed, and those infamous CGI eyes might be a good explanation as to why. This is because the film seems to fall victim to the same plight; it looks like a bonafide science fiction blockbuster, but with something that’s just not quite right. James Cameron has worked with director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”) to faithfully adapt a unique and vividly imagined world to the screen, but something about the presentation of it gives the film a sort of cheap, made-for-TV look. The film is absolutely gorgeous when it wants to be, and some of the action sequences are truly spectacular, but it’s the expository, low-action shots that often look like cheap sci-fi camp. “Alita” as a series has long marketed itself as the classic cyberpunk story, but its flash-in-the-pan visual theatrics feel one-note when compared to a film like 2017’s “Blade Runner: 2049,” a sci-fi epic with similar themes that was one of the most visually enthralling films of the modern era.
The most disappointing element of the film, however, is its script. The dialogue is often painfully cheesy; at one point, mid-skirmish, we hear Alita think to herself (in voiceover) “I do not standby in the presence of evil!” Then, Alita lands another punch and yells the exact same sentence, again, not a second after we heard it in voiceover. Beyond the dialogue, it’s conceptually ill-conceived to boot. The film refuses to engage with its cyberpunk roots in any meaningful way, instead using the sub-genre as an aesthetic preference. This is because Alita’s cybernetic nature is never truly addressed. In media like “Blade Runner,” “Westworld” and “Ex Machina,” the cerebral core of the film lies in a struggle to define humanity. The Replicants of “Blade Runner” and the Hosts of “Westworld” all struggle with who and what they are, trying to make sense of their own existence as a synthesized intelligence. Cameron never asks Alita to wrestle with these questions, and the film feels neutered as a result.
So what, then, makes “Alita” worth seeing? For lack of a better word, its heart. What it lacks in brains, the film makes up for with pure, unabashed earnestness. Watching the film, I was often reminded of the heart-on-its-sleeve sincerity of anime such as “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.” For better or worse, “Alita” is more concerned with impassioned declarations of love in the heat of battle than it is with cerebral questions regarding human nature. Luckily, this works most of the time, and the film is frequently heartfelt as a result. Rosa Salazar (“Birdbox”) is the best part of the film as the titular Alita. She plays the character with just the right blend of intensity and wide-eyed (no pun intended) enthusiasm for the world she’s rediscovering. Speaking of the giant eyes, despite all the misguided decisions that went into their existence, they do actually lend the character an extra layer of expressiveness that genuinely works. It’s in this way that those CGI peepers serve as a solid analogy for the film as a whole; rough around the edges and uncomfortable at times, but once you get used to it there’s something undeniably infectious about its soul.