Alita: Battle Angel | Robert Rodriguez | February 14, 2019
Robert Rodriguez returns big with Alita: Battle Angel, a big screen adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm (also known as Battle Angel Alita) which spent many years in development. Titanic director James Cameron had it in his sights as his follow-up project, but after developing the technology for Avatar and diving into the still-in-progress sequels, he handed the directorial reins over to Robert Rodriguez, with Cameron staying on as a co-producer with Jon Landau.
When cyber-surgeon Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds Alita (Rosa Salazar), a female cyborg with only her upper body intact, he brings her home and restores her to life with a new functioning body, but she can’t remember any of her previous life. Alita has a kind and caring heart, one that is naturally curious about Iron City, a post-apocalyptic city operating 300 years after an event known as “The Fall”. It’s in this lower-class city she quickly forms a love interest with a young boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) and has interesting interactions with shady-leaning characters such as Ido’s doctor ex Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and Vector (Mahershala Ali), who runs the city’s favorite sport: Motorball, which Alita soon gravitates towards. The residents of Iron City aspire to move up in the world to find a way to reach the aerial city Zalum, overseen by the mysterious scientist named Nova, who has the ability to briefly possess the minds of those such as Vector who work for him in Iron City. Slowly but surely, Alita’s memories come flooding back to her and she realizes that she was a warrior in her past life and that she may have more to do with the historic wall and the city of Zalum than she realizes.
On a technical level, Alita: Battle Angel is an overwhelming success. You feel immersed in this world and Rodriguez brings it to life with some stunning visuals and some of the best motion capture work since Andy Serkis in any of the new Planet Of The Apes movies. I am not usually one for 3D, but seeing this in Dolby 3D was a memorable experience, one that I felt actually enhances the immersion into the world, rather than being an unnecessary distraction.
Where Alita: Battle Angel is brought back to earth is with the familiar plot and the love story. Although the manga was released in 1990, the sci-fi and apocalyptic themes it puts into play here feel like standard fare at this point, most recently looking back at Elysium.
The screenplay, co-written by Cameron and Terminator: Genisys scribe Laeta Kalogridis, doesn’t add quite enough new dimension to the world building. Despite the best efforts of its cast, the love story feels forced with some of the familiar cliche elements that tend to come from any of Cameron’s work.
Rosa Salazar offers a strong emotive persona that shines through the motion capture and should be a star-making performance for the young actress. Without such a charming performance from Salazar, it’s hard to imagine this film working at any level at all. She and Keean Johnson bring as much believability to their relationship to the screen as possible, even if it’s not all that fleshed out on the page. While Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, and Jennifer Connelly bring their best performances to the table as usual, it’s hard to deny how wasted all are in the grand scheme of things.
While the story doesn’t exactly break new ground, the action sequences are visceral and full of life. Alita: Battle Angel provides all the violence that one expects from a Robert Rodriguez film – albeit slightly toned down for a PG-13 audience. These action sequences are eye-popping, enough to keep the audience entertained throughout the 2-hour film’s shortcomings in bringing all aspects of the manga to life, especially considering that its goal is more setup for a sequel, rather than a satisfying conclusion to the in-progress storyline.
Ultimately, it feels like a mix of Rodriguez’s style-over-substance indulgences and Cameron’s familiar storytelling devices. It doesn’t concretely feel like a film that has either’s direct stamp on it, but at the same time, their fingerprints are all over it.
We will see if Alita finds enough success at the box office to warrant a sequel, but it seems that the film already has more in its sights either way. If it just took some more time to embrace the world-building elements and action sequences that work so well and slowed its roll, it would’ve earned more than enough stock to warrant the sequels that it so clearly desires.