James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez did something that I wish had happened a long time ago. That is to the big screen a “Disney”-princess-type story but make that princess a deadly-killing machine…emphasis on “machine.” While being a little sarcastic, this pretty much describes Alita: Battle Angel and this idea of a killer cyborg “princess” weighs down an otherwise cool looking flick.
Alita: Battle Angel opens at the bottom of a scrap heap in the post-apocalyptic-industrial setting of Iron City. The city lays under the shadow of the last great Sky City known as Zalem. Zalem is as close to heaven as it gets for the citizens below. Entrance to this city in the sky is virtually impossible thanks to its gatekeeper, a mysterious man called Nova.
Meanwhile scavenging through the scrap heap is the solitary figure Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), Scrapyard City’s best cyberphysician. Here Ido discovers the head and spinal column of a cyborg—a combination of living tissue and robotic parts—and somehow still viable. Returning to his lab, Dr. Ido attaches the head to the robotic body of an adolescent girl; he happens to have lying around (of course, it wasn’t just lying around). Here the titular Alita (Rosa Salazar) is reborn and starting the beginning of the father-daughter relationship that will play out for the rest of the film.
“She’s more than a human and more than a cyborg, and this film is about discovering who she is.”
Based on the graphic novel series, Gunnm, by Yukito Kishiro, director Rodriguez builds the visually stunning world of Alita: Battle Angel with both a massive practical set and an even more enormous CG-world to explore. His most significant cinematic achievement come with his seamless blending of real actors with CG-cyber body parts.
This world is a dangerous one too. Everyone’s losing a limb or two or three, and Dr. Ido rebuilds them stronger and better. Iron City inhabitants are average people just trying to survive day-to-day in this post-apocalyptic world. Added to the mix are the cyborgs. They were born regular people, and who have had practically every part of their body replaced except their heads. They can be outfitted with wheels, weapons, and cool gadgets to live life as competitors in a game of Motoball (think Rollerball with robots). Finally, there are the hunter-warriors, the freelance police of Iron City. It’s soon revealed that Dr. Ido is a hunter-warrior. They earn their living slaying criminals and villains and present their heads for some quick cash.
Now, we must have villains. The mysterious Nova is the gatekeeper to Zalem, and basically, no one gets enters unless you become the ultimate Motoball champion. Nova gains allies by promising them an opportunity to earn their way into Zalem with favors. His primary surrogate below is the evil Vector (Mahershala Ali), the “commissioner” of Motoball and Iron City kingpin of sorts. By Vector’s side is Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Motoball’s official cyberphysician and former resident of Zalem.
Now, what about Alita. She’s more than a human and more than a cyborg, and this film is about discovering who she is. Where did she come from? And why is she the best fighter in the entire city and maybe their only hope? What’s her connection to Zalem?
“…has as much depth as a Disney Channel movie. That’s not to say it’s bad…”
But again, this is Alita’s story. She’s an adolescent girl with an overprotective father in Dr. Ido. She’s also a killing machine. Seeing life through rose-colored glasses, she becomes too trusting of strangers and falls for the good-looking bad boy, Hugo (Keean Johnson). Alita: Battle Angel, especially its love story, has as much depth as a Disney Channel movie. That’s not to say it’s bad, because Disney Channel movies have a specific audience and it may appeal to the tween girl crowd. It’s just doesn’t jive with a film of its enormous size and huge budget and it’s the weakest element of the film.
Speaking of plot holes and specifically a massive plot hole the size of the floating city of Zalem, audiences are given pretty much little information about life in Zalem, except that everyone wants to live there someday. So what exactly is so cool about Zalem? Because I don’t know, and therefore I don’t care. Is it heaven? Or is it hell?
If you approach Alita: Battle Angel like a standard action film, where you’re there just for the stunts, you will have a good time. The world created by James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez is visually stunning. Rosa Salazar is fantastic as Alita, and she shines in her mocap performance. First Thanos and now Alita, CG-characters are starting to feel more and more human. Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, and Jennifer Connelly absolutely ground their performances enough to pull off a futuristic Manga world and avoid unnecessary eye-rolling. This movie is good enough for a recommendation but really should have been much better than it was, which doesn’t bode well for its sequel.
Alita: Battle Angel (2019) Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Written by James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, Robert Rodriguez. Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson.
7 out of 10 stars