Picoreview: Alita: Battle Angel

Picoreview: Alita: Battle Angel : This was much better than I expected it to be. OTOH, I expected it to be very, very, very, very bad indeed.

I thought the story might be okayish but that the CGI would be–I was not convinced by it in the trailers. It just looked creepy, the anime face. The proportions looked wrong. I thought they’d landed squarely in the uncanny valley and had been unable to do anything about it. So I was really surprised to find that the CGI is by and large very good. It’s not…*real*. Or realistic. I don’t know how many years out we are from realistic anime CGI like that, but this year wasn’t it, and I’m not sure if they were really trying to achieve it or not. Either way, it’s largely pretty good CGI.

The story, OTOH, is a hot mess.

Now, I don’t know the source material (except for being aware it exists), so I can’t say how well it matches the story presented on the screen. But what I want to talk about is the story structure, because from a writer POV there were things they were obviously *trying* to achieve, and it’s very clear to me what went wrong and caused them to fail.

Spoilers after the cut. If you stop here, you can take away the knowledge that actually I’d go see another one, so despite the hot mess-ness of it, I overall enjoyed it pretty well. :)

Okay, so, roughly the story is “amnesiac cyborg girl must discover who she is”, both in the literal and in the “who she wants to be” sense. And that’s fine, because we all understand how that story structure works. There are a variety of supporting players, played with varying degrees of skill: the father figure, the distant mother figure, the love interest; the obvious bad guy, the nebulous bad guy, the mysterious bad guy. It’s a perfect 3-act setup for a trilogy.

Except. Wow. Jeez. Um.

The Obvious Bad Guy, Vector (Mahershala Ali, looking regal af because he has no other way to look), has henchmen who have minions who have rivalries who have troubles of their own. This would actually be fine in story structure terms. Alita has to work her way through the minions, discover the troubles presented to *her* by the rivalries, face the henchmen, and work her way up to the Boss Fight. Good. Okay. We got this.

Except they introduced the Nebulous Bad Guy halfway through the movie and made it clear that he’s the Boss Fight that Alita needs to get to, and then…didn’t get her there. Instead, they give us Vector’s defeat, but because we’ve been set up for the Nebulous Boss Fight, that defeat doesn’t feel anything at all like a final beat for the film. ESPECIALLY when we discover the newly-resurrected love interest is heading for the Nebulous Boss’s physical location, which means yay! Alita will go after him, save him, and defeat the Nebulous Boss!

Buuuuuuut no, they kill the love interest for the second time in ten minutes and, having not only given us the physical setup for Alita to reach the Nebulous Boss Fight, they…cut to another location, another time, another scene entirely, and earned a resounding, “Uh, what?” from the audience, which has been set up to expect a Boss Fight and absolutely totally has not gotten it in.

I don’t understand what went wrong. I can tell they want this to have sequels, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have developed a totally satisfying standalone story with the potential for sequels instead of leaving it (almost literally) hanging. They had all the pieces they needed to make a satisfying 3-part story arc:

Movie #1: Vector is The Bad Guy Who Must Be Defeated, then O No! A final scene or a mid-credits sting shows us that Vector was under someone else’s control all along! Now Alita must set her sights higher (literally, given the world structure)! Her newly cybernetic love interest who owes his life to her will join her in her newly defined quest which also happens to align with his personal desires, or did before he got dead and revived!

Movie #2: Alita reaches the Nebulous Boss’s world and fights her way through the goblin kingdom to take back the chi–no, but you know what I mean. We learn more about the world and Alita’s past. We make a Shocking Discovery about the truth her foster family left behind. The Nebulous Bad Guy tempts her with something she cannot–quite–resist! Her love interest sees through the Boss’s gamble and saves her, at the cost of his own life! Alita comes to her senses and defeats the Nebulous Boss BUT IN DOING SO UNLEASHES TERRIBLE, FINAL SECRET OF THE MYSTERIOUS BAD GUYS!

Movie #3: Alita knows so much about who she is now, but there are still questions, and there’s no time left to answer them, because the MYSTERIOUS BAD GUYS are coming to destroy everyone and everything she’s ever known! When her link to them is fully revealed, her resolve weakens and she nearly allows the invasion to succeed, but then a fully cybernetic body with the mind and heart of her dead lover/father/dog/whatever reaches out to her and she realizes that in order to truly become fully human she must give up the last of her humanity and save the world DUN DUN DAAAAAAAAAAH

Or something like that. I mean, structurally it’s all right there, and I’m completely baffled as to why they blew it so badly. Why JAMES CAMERON blew it so badly. (Because he was producing, not directing, except he WROTE the screenplay, too, and I’m very disappointed in him, like, WTH, James, I expect more of you.)

Anyway, so, yeah. In the end I left the movie going “Well, that was better than I expected, but it would have been A LOT BETTER if they’d cut ten minutes of Robot Roller Derby and given us an actual ending (or done as I’ve just outlined) instead.”

And despite all that complaining, I’d see another one. :)