By Joey Lopez
Set in 2563 in the massive slums known as Iron City, 300 years after an apocalyptic intergalactic war known as “The Fall”, war between the Earth dwelling elite who reside in sky cities and the URM, a race of Martian warriors. Only one sky city remains known as Zalem, an Elysium type city where only the special and highest members of society get to live. Beneath Zalem is the junk yard where all of its trash is dumped which also happens to be a haven for scavengers such as Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). In Zalem’s refuse, Ido discovers the destroyed body of a peculiar cyborg. Bringing her home and rebuilding her body, Ido welcomes Alita into his home by naming her after his dead daughter. Alita’s memory is completely gone, but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in discovering who she is until she’s ambushed by a group of homicidal cyborgs and is hit with flashes of her past in the ensuing battle. From there, Alita embarks on a journey to uncover her past, fight some cyborgs, become a bounty hunter and play the deadly sport known as “Motorball” which is just rollerball with robots.
Alita: Battle Angel has been in develop since James Cameron put the finishing touches on his masterpiece Titanic back in the late 90s. What was supposed to be his follow up was pushed to the back burner in favor of the visually stunning yet flat and shallow Avatar, fluttering about develop hell for nearly two decades until Robert Rodriguez picked up the reigns and spearheaded the project himself. We’re lucky that James Cameron stepped back because this is without a doubt Rodriguez’s best film in years if not in his entire career. It was a surprise to learn that Rodriguez even directed Alita having mostly focused on entirely original properties of his own creation, so for his first adaptation to be so outstanding and faithful to the source material was a pleasant surprise.
Although Cameron’s influence is apparent having co-written and produced the film; the hyper-realistic CGI being his most recent signature, but Rodriguez left his mark with the brilliant bone-shattering fight choreography and shocking violence — in no way was it his usual gratuitous go-to, but felt natural and a part of the world he meticulously lays out before us. Of course, another sign of Rodriguez’s mark is having a latina actor as our leading woman, Alita. Rosa Salazar’s performance is the best part of this film. Accomplishing the incredible feat of giving an emotional, nuanced performance through a completely CG character, Salazar gave Alita more heart than the actual live-action actors themselves.
The story itself was rather campy and suffered from Cameron’s usual fumbling, but holy shit is this movie fun. The trope of a amnesiac protagonist has been played out time and time again, but Alita is likeable enough for us to be willing to go on this journey of discovering her identity with her. Even the brief moments of flashback to her past are enough to hook us into the long run. And Alita is long, clocking in at 2 hours and twenty minutes, but the pacing makes it feel half that. The first act of the film is a bit of a slog and Alita’s love interested, Hugo, kind of fucking sucks. Keean Johnson looks and acts like he got lost on his way to the soundstage for a Disney film in where he plays the motorcycle-riding bad boy. His development is forced and is literally the love interest by virtue of being the first boy Alita meets and practically the only man she speaks to that isn’t a giant murderous cyborg or Ido.
It’s an issue when the mostly CG cyborg monsters, save for their human faces, are more believable than the human characters. Maybe that was on purpose. Probably not, but Alita is cool enough to overlook that since our main focus are on Alita and the other cyborgs themselves. Give credit where credit is due because those cyborgs are cool as shit — some are cool cyberpunk looking bounty-hunters known as Hunter Killers and some are homicidal for… well, no real reason is given behind their motivation to go around killing people besides just being crazy ol’ murder machines which is a little disappointing, but their action sequences are visually mind-blowing. Every fight Alita gets into is heart stopping. After signing up to be a Hunter Killer herself, Alita gets herself into one of the coolest bar fight scenes and the single best fight scene into the entire movie when she attracts the attention of Jackie Earle Haley’s Gerwishka; a hulking brute that wants nothing but to destroy Alita based on the orders of his omnipresent and immortal master Nova played by an uncredited Edward Norton in a surprise cameo.
It’s painfully obvious that this film was supposed to be much longer. The motorball side-plot feels like it should have been either scrapped or saved for another installment in the franchise and this is definitely being set-up to be a franchise. The open-endedness of Alita leaves us wanting for so much more. Nothing is solved by the end. We still don’t know who Alita exactly was before she was brought back to life besides a member of the URM special forces and we have no idea who Nova is, why he’s immortal of what the fuck his motivations are. The flashiness of the action serves as a distraction and it does distract well. However, Alita comes off as if it ended at the beginning of a proper final act. Everything that happens before this is satisfying enough — a cyborg gets his face cut off! But the exciting action beats aren’t enough to make this film feel like anything more than pure set-up.
Alita: Battle Angel is an absolute blast until it isn’t. Too many threads are left waving in the wind, but the action and the stunning vfx are result in it being entertaining enough to be enjoyed on a surface level. Don’t expect anything too deep just expect to have some fun with a bunch of robots tearing each other apart.