Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
An Angel Falls. A Warrior Rises.
Being a huge anime buff, chances were I was always going to flip out over Alita: Battle Angel, the manga-inspired cyberpunk sci-fi extravaganza directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by Academy Award-winners James Cameron and Jon Landau. First announced in 2003, and developed under Lightstorm Entertainment (Cameron’s production house), the long-gestating project has, at long last, made its way to the silver screen, and after an incredibly frustrating seven-month delay, too — it was initially slated to hit theatres on July 20th, 2018 before moving to December 21st, finally settling on February 14th, 2019 for a Valentine’s Day release. And, hey, given that we’re in the midst of the #MeToo era, there’s never been a better time to drop a female-driven actioner.
While generally not fond of the phrase ‘worth the wait,’ Alita wholeheartedly delivers, making good on the big, bizarro boundary-pushing visuals and fierce bloodsport battle arena action teased in the film’s trailers — it’s a heck of a fun ride, so much so that I couldn’t wipe the sweeping smile off my face while watching some of the mind-blowing action scenes — and there are quite a few! With that said, it doesn’t come as much of a shock to see that 20th (or in this case 26th) Century Fox have pushed the movie’s eye-popping imagery, the trailers keeping plot particulars to a minimum, choosing to focus more on the jaw-dropping spectacle that Alita promises to be.
Based primarily on the first four volumes of Yukito Kishiro’s 1990 manga series Gunnm (‘gun dream’ if translated directly from its Japanese-language title), Alita: Battle Angel follows young female cyborg ‘Alita’ (Rosa Salazar), who’s blessed with a fully functional human brain, discovered in a city scrapyard by robot scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who stumbles on her disembodied remains (well, her head and torso) while scrounging around searching for spare parts. You see, the year is 2563 and the Earth has been left in ruin after a devastating war known as ‘The Fall,’ the gritty and oppressive Iron City (the flick’s prime setting) a dumping ground for Zalem, a humongous 300-year-old man-made metal metropolis that floats high in the sky — people see it as a type of haven, with most desperate to be allowed entry into the orbiting oasis.
Anyhow, Ido quickly takes the girl back to his cybernetic surgery and rebuilds her using a shell crafted for his deceased daughter, subsequently naming her Alita, the name of his late little girl. The newly awoken Alita, however, has no recollection of her past — she can’t remember who she is or where she’s come from — and soon sets off on a dangerous quest to discover her true purpose and identity, her journey destined to reshape the fate of the rest of world.
Written by Cameron — who, at one point, was attached to direct before pulling out to focus on his Avatar (2009) sequels — Laeta Kalogridis, Shutter Island (2010), and filmmaker Rodriguez, Alita’s screenplay stands to be its biggest glitch. It’s not that the script is bad, just generic, the film telling a pretty standard Pinocchio-type yarn, focusing on the self-discovery and self-empowerment of our adorable wide-eyed (quite literally) protagonist, who evolves from being an earnest and naïve young lady into a fierce sword-wielding warrior, the bionic babe proving to be more human than half the ‘meatbags’ we meet. And, with an overly intricate storyline, juggling multiple characters and story threads all at the one time, motivations/ allegiances of many are kept sketchy at best — a setback of the modern-day would-be series starter, Alita a proposed two (or three) parter.
While a lot of the particulars have been left vague (we don’t learn too much about the dystopian junkyard, the hovering Zalem or the Hydro-Wall, which stands at the city’s edge — we also see glimpses of an all-out war on the Moon, which I would’ve loved to see more of), there’s some crazy-cool world building going on — heck, here’s a future where Jackie Earle Haley (via some nifty VFX) is a hulking muscle-bound scrapheap who answers to the film’s big bad, a white-haired, goggle-wearing scientist named Nova (who, uncannily, looks a little like producer Jim). Yet, Battle Angel only scratches the surface of the manga’s mythology and its radical ideas — I’m not terribly familiar with the source material, but I do have an inkling that it’s heavier and much more thought-provoking than the fluff we’re given here. Sure, there’s some deliciously dark themes and hyper-violent imagery, but I feel that it’s all been dialed down to appeal to a broader audience — moviemakers should have simply embraced Alita’s adult roots instead of clunkily marrying them with YA components.
Making a jump from low-budget pictures to mega-million dollar blockbusters, Robert Rodriguez knows his own strengths and plays to them, serving up the super-stylish visuals and strong, fluent fight scenes synonymous with his brand of filmmaking — this isn’t schlocky Rodriguez, it’s Sin City (2005) Rodriguez. The Motorball scenes — the aforementioned a deadly gladiatorial derby held in an extreme Rollerblade-type track — are more than worth the price of admission (they’re unlike anything I’ve ever seen), our slick, sexy titular heroine clanging metal with some of the most brutish man-machine Frankenstine’s monsters ever committed to screen. And that’s just one of many stirring sequences; another that springs to mind features an angry Alita slicing through a swarm of spider-mech tanks before taking on Mahershala Ali’s menacing entrepreneur Vector. There’s also a bit in a bar (eventually spilling into the sewers below) that’s pretty kick-ass, our fallen angel challenging a bunch of ruthless bounty hunters called Hunter-Warriors, making enemies with the most lethal of them all, a sleek and sinister pretty-boy assassin named Zapan, played wonderfully by Ed Skrein, Deadpool (2016), who’s in top form here.
On the whole, performances are collectively solid, with the real MVP being Rosa Salazar, Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018), who wholly sells the hardbody heroine. Although playing a fully computer-generated character, who, for the very first time in movie history, has been created with photo-realistic manga/ anime eyes (I’ll say it, anime girls are hot), the 33-year-old actress manages to be both likeable and relatable, breathing life into the petite big-eyed battler effortlessly, Salazar shaping what will surely become one of the greatest cinematic female champions of this generation.
Before throwing racelifting charges at Alita’s casting, one must remember that the manga is actually set somewhere in the United States, near Kansas City, Missouri, according to a map printed in the eighth volume; and then there’s name of a tavern seen in the film — so I guess it makes sense that the talent assembled is fairly diverse. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (2012), plays against type as Alita’s kind and gentle caretaker, who, at the flick of a switch, transforms into a death-dealing rocket hammer-swinging hard-ass, while it’s nice to see Jennifer Connelly, Requiem for a Dream (2000), back on the big screen, even if her femme fatale, Chiren, should’ve been given more to do.
There are also stacks of stunningly rendered digital characters — played by actors such as Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers (1997), and Eiza González, Baby Driver (2017) — who interact seamlessly with the live action elements. The only casting defect IMO would have to be Keean Johnson’s Hugo, who, although selling the romance subplot, looks a little too Disney Channel to play Alita’s streetwise bad boy bf — and given the direction that his arc goes, well … I just couldn’t buy Johnson in the role. And, as it usually goes with these kinds of entertainers, keep an eye out for some surprise cameos by a couple of recognizable faces.
All in all, Alita: Battle Angel is visionary stuff, thanks to its next-level VFX created by leading FX houses Weta Digital, DNEG and Framestore — honestly, it’s the techy whizz-kids who are the real stars of the show. Yes, Battle Angel is hugely ambitious and, as a result, occasionally stumbles, but as an unalloyed manga adaptation, it’s one giant step in the right direction, and far better than 2017’s sub-par Ghost in the Shell. My chief gripe with the entire thing is that we may never get to see a follow-up — one of the many tragedies of the Disney-Fox merger — which is blatantly baited in Alita’s third act. 2D, 3D, whatever, just go out and buy a ticket, you won’t be disappointed, especially if you consider yourself a genre enthusiast. Either way, it’s a great time to be an anime fan!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner