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Through the first two thirds of its run time, Alita: Battle Angel is genuinely entertaining. Newcomer Rosa Salazar has an engaging presence and she's backed up by an all-star team of Academy Award elite including Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, and Jackie Earl Haley, all under the direction of visionary auteur Robert Rodriguez.
So, what went wrong in the third act? What happened that ruined what was, for me, an unexpectedly engaging, manga-based adventure story? How did they screw this up? I even bought into the cockamamie romance between Rosa Salazar and fellow newcomer Keean Johnson, and still the movie was ruined by the ending.
From here on out, nothing but spoilers; if the title wasn't warning enough, here's another one: I will be writing very specifically about the final act of Alita: Battle Angel. You've been warned!
1. "The Warrior's Code"
Near the beginning of the final act of Alita: Battle Angel, Keean Johnson's Hugo is nearly murdered by a cyborg bounty hunter named Zapan and played by Ed Skrein. Hugo, it turns out, was working on the down low for Mahershala Ali's baddie, Vector. Hugo's gig was jacking cyborg's for parts, specifically those cyborgs that were a threat to Vector's champions in the game called Motorball.
This reveal is a significant betrayal to Alita, a cyborg herself, who has fallen deeply in love with Hugo over the course of the story. However, the story has Alita allowing Hugo to be murdered by Zapan, in front of her. The storyline reason for this is not his betrayal, but her supposed allegiance to something called "The Warrior's Code." Alita vowed allegiance to "The Warrior's Code" when she enrolled as a bounty hunter herself.
The script asks too much as it asks us to believe that she would willingly allow Hugo to be killed in front of her, but it especially stretches believability to ask us to believe she did so to remain loyal to a warrior's code she swore allegiance to only several scenes prior to this scene. This, plus the fact that Zapan has been an antagonist to Alita for most of his screen time make this turn of logic hard to swallow.
This especially fails because Rosa Salazar and Keean Johnson do a wonderful job of selling this unusual romance. She's a cyborg and he's a human and that sounds like the setup to a sitcom parody. Regardless of that, the puppy dog quality to Alita's love for Hugo really won me over and while I could understand the hurt that Hugo's betrayal might cause, that betrayal is actually relatively minor and given what happens in the immediate aftermath of this death scene, it must not have meant all that much to Alita that she would stand there and watch Hugo be killed.
2. Cyborg Hugo
As Hugo lays dying from the wound from Zapan, he and Alita make up and she begins to mourn him and their lost love until Jennifer Connelly's Chiren arrives with a convenient quality that borders on miraculous. That she is also carrying the tools needed to remove Hugo's head and keep it alive by hooking it to Alita's ungodly powerful, nuclear reactor heart, is God in the Machine levels of groan inducing "coincidence."
This bad turn of plot goes from bad to worse when Alita escapes the bounty hunters carrying Hugo's head like a football in order to deliver it to Christoph Waltz's Doctor Ido who happens to be Alita's adopted father and the only doctor, other than Connelly's Chiren, who could attach Hugo's head to a brand new cyborg body. Keean Johnson looks utterly unconvincingly, laughably, ridiculous as a cyborg. I understand that the intent is for this to be a Hail Mary pass to save his life, but the effects make Johnson look absurd when he's in his new cyborg guise.
The reveal of cyborg Hugo is meant to be poignant, slightly tragic, and yet miraculous. Instead, I laughed out loud when I saw the final result. To this point, I had completely bought into Alita as a cyborg and the various cyborg bounty hunters she had been interacting with, each of whom had a similarly DIY cyborg aesthetic. And yet, the CGI cyborg Hugo didn't work. The look crossed that uncanny valley into a place that was hard to look at without chuckling.
3. The Death of Vector
Mahershala Ali has an Academy Award. He has a career that is on the rise. He is in demand as a supporting player and as a leading man on television. Yet, in the world of Alita: Battle Angel, Mahershala Ali plays the kind of second banana, bad guy flunkie who gets murdered by James Bond's female partner and not even James himself because the character isn't important enough for James to kill him.
In the third act of Alita: Battle Angel, despite being Mahershala freaking Ali, Academy Award winner, his character Vector is dispatched in a manner befitting second banana bad guys from lesser 80s and 90s action movies. This death and character are so far beneath the talent of Mahershala Ali that this entry alone nearly ruined the movie for me.
The third act and Vector's ignominious, inglorious death, is the spoiled cherry on top of a curdled sundae. After having spent the movie having Nova take over his body and do all the business for him, Vector is killed unceremoniously and that's it. No great death, no moments of charismatic flair for one of the most charismatic actors working today. He's treated as nothing more than a flunky for the Academy Award nominated actor whose cameo wraps up this list.
If you are going to cast Mahershala Ali in a role like this you have a duty to him and to the audience to give the man a proper death. His end needs to be operatic, over the top, something befitting an Oscar winner and bonafide badass actor. Instead, Alita dispatches Vector with a forgettable thud after Nova uses Vector as something akin to a human radio in order to deliver a warning to our heroine.
In fairness, Motorball isn't an entirely third act invention. The game that dominates the sports culture of the year 2563 is introduced early on in the movie and is a well used second act set-piece as well as Alita makes an attempt to join the big leagues of the game. What doesn't work is how Motorball figures into the ending of the movie. According to the plot, whomever becomes the champion of Motorball in the grounded metropolis of Iron City will have the opportunity to ascend to the wealthy, sky based city of Zalem.
Almost everyone in Iron City wants to find their way to Zalem and this plot point drives many of the characters, including Hugo. Regardless, Zalem is where the films real bad guy resides. This bad guy is a scientist named Nova and, ugh, we wll get to him. Nova doesnt actualy allow anyone from Iron City to come to Zalem, he merely dangles the possibility as a way to manipulate people via his minion, Vector.
When Hugo, who became a scavenger for Vector on promises that he would be able to buy his way to Zalem, finds out that it's all a lie, he attempts to climb his way to Zalem to fight the bad guy. He's joined by Alita, eventually, who has, by this point, recovered much of her identity. She now remembers who Nova is and remembers having been tasked with killing him in the past.
Nova prevents Hugo and Alita from getting to Zalem by killing Hugo. This sets up Alita's desperate desire for revenge against Nova. Nova is fully aware that Alita intends to kill him. So, when at the end of the movie, instead of trying to secret herself into Zalem to get at Nova, Alita returns to Motorball intent on becoming the champion and going to Zalem that way.
Anyone else curious why Nova, knowing that Alita has fast become a weapon intent on killing him would honor the promise of bringing the Motorball champion to Zalem if he knew that the champ was coming specifically to kill him? It's a significantly large plot hole here. Why would Nova bring the person he knows intends to kill him to the one place where she could actually enact that vengeance? And yet, that's how Alita: Battle Angel ends, with Alita just one competitor away from being the Motorball champion and ascending to Zalem presumably to kill the man in charge.
5. Edward Norton as Nova
I burst out laughing at the first full on glimpse of Edward Norton as Nova. From his white-gray, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka wig to his goofy, inefficient, tiny glasses, I could not take this character seriously for even the 10 seconds he is on screen in Alita: Battle Angel.
I could not find a production still of Norton as Nova. They're keeping the cameo under wraps for fans of the manga eager to be surprised by an appearance by this important character in the comic, but the website The Ringer has a strong approximation of just how laugh out loud silly Norton looks as the big bad guy on Zalem. He looks like Rick from a terrible, ill-conceived, low budget, live-action Rick and Morty movie.