Alita: Battle Angel
Set several centuries in the future, the abandoned Alita is found in the scrapyard of Iron City by Ido, a compassionate cyber-doctor who takes the unconscious cyborg Alita to his clinic. When Alita awakens, she has no memory of who she is, nor does she have any recognition of the world she finds herself in. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious past.
2 hours 2 minutes
February 14, 2019
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson
Genre: Science Fiction
James Cameron is a bit of an odd bird. The man wrote and directed the two highest grossing films of all time and it doesn’t seem to even phase him or those around him. The guy clearly knows how to register with audiences on a universal level in his storytelling, there’s no question about that. Many a far better reviewer than I have harshly criticized him for how basic, pedestrian, and simple his storytelling tends to be. I only disagree with such vitriol in so far as to say that it’s not a weakness, but a strength. As much as I appreciate and give honors to those filmmakers who break convention and deliver in some unorthodox ways, it’s healthy to be reminded of how effective and essential the basics are. Enjoy your five-star gourmet meals, but not at the expense of your balanced breakfasts.
With Cameron operating simply as co-writer for Alita: Battle Angel and Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez at the helm, one would be right to expect stylish CGI fun with a simple-but-effective storyline and iconic characters (or at least solid characterizations) milling about. I could also expect there to be shots needlessly catering to those willing to pay extra for 3D, but they’re not writing this review, so there.
Violence/Scary Images: Lots of fantasy violence. Martial arts-style fighting. Weapons. Slicing with blades. Stabbing. Characters are killed. A dog is killed offscreen. Blood shown (cyborg blood is blue). Punching. Threats. Screaming.
Language/Crude Humor: One f-bomb, plus infrequent uses of “s***,” “b****,” “piss,” “pr***,” “hell,” “crap.”
Sexual Content: Sexualized, objectified female characters. A scene of flirting/kissing between a young man and a female cyborg. Young man shown shirtless.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Secondary characters drink whiskey. Young man says he drank “too much” the night before (sort of hung over).
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Frequent criminality.
Positive Content: The movie’s very simple messages have to do with the class system; i.e. a lack of sharing between rich and poor causes a great, horrible divide.Though the movie also has themes of female empowerment, they’re wrapped up in a character who’s somewhat objectified for her looks.
Some characters try to be good in a difficult world, and others are evil, but the characters aren’t fleshed out enough to be credibly relatable role models for most viewers.
I find it’s rather important when starting a story to establish motivation quickly. If you’re skilled enough to fixate in the audience’s mind what the characters motivations are before even the actions are depicted, more power to you. When I first stepped into the world of Alita: Battle Angel, my immediate question was to wonder why Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido was scrounging around a landfill for robot parts. Sure, that’s what we’d find a protagonist in a dystopian sci-fi action thriller to do at some point as a given, but why is this character doing that? Was he expecting to find something in particular? Was he trying to find something to aid in his business? If so, what is his business?
Granted, these questions were answered fairly quickly in the scenes that followed, but not in a very compelling way. As it goes, Dr. Ido finds the body of a cyborg inhabited by the fully intact brain of a teen girl. After going full Frankenstein and resurrecting the girl, he takes on the role of a surrogate father to her, affectionately naming her “Alita” and going about teaching her how the world works now, showing her the tropes. Sorry, I meant to say, “showing her the ropes”, but that also works.
Industry great James Cameron, along with co-writer Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys), has penned another basically satisfying if not unfamiliar yarn festooned with well-worn archetypes and standard story flourishes that are inviting but unchallenging for any viewer to recognize. We have a main character who starts off her arc burdened with amnesia, a call to adventure, big bad corporate baddies that are big and bad, an estranged married couple with divergent expectations for their new surrogate daughter, more scrounging around in ruins, useless talk about how “it’s too dangerous” and “I’m only trying to protect you” as an ineffective shroud for what emotionally registers as betrayal…
Okay, stop the review for a moment. You ever get the odd feeling that another filmmaker might be involved in a movie’s production with no concrete reason to think so? I went into last year’s somewhat endearing Rampage with the teasing assumption that the infamous Uwe Boll may have come up in the credits somewhere, and in retrospect, I’m surprised that sci-fi aficionado Neil Blomkamp was nowhere to be found in Alita. What’s on offer here could be considered a refined conglomeration of Blomkamp’s short list of achievements.
The disenfranchised scavenger drama of District 9, the imposingly suspended metropolis of both the former and Elysium, the Pinocchio inspired characterization of Chappie; yeah, we’re right at home here. Don’t mistake my flippant tone here for dissatisfaction, dear reader. As rote and unassuming as Alita is, there’s a lot of fun to be had. Seeing an amnesia-stricken waif rediscover her purpose and roots through friends, family, high-stakes conflict, and coincidental flashbacks are nothing outside the ordinary, but it still works really effectively, and I kinda dig it. There won’t be any collegiate term papers written about the “deeper meaning” of Alita’s post-apocalyptic mythos, but since when was that a marker of success?
The world of Iron City, we are told, is the ravaged slums of an Earth that warred against the military forces of Mars centuries ago (supposedly, Earth was victorious, since the Martians are nowhere to be found). Dr. Ido makes ends meet in plying his trade as a cyber-surgeon to a population that has cybernetic prosthetics as commonly as we have wristwatches. Deftly played by Bird Box actress Rosa Salazar, Alita busies herself by exploring and dodging the many threats dotting Iron City’s landscape, including raging law enforcement drones, legal bounty hunters known as “hunter-warriors” for some reason, and cute boys with about as much of a personality as a one-winged cicada in the rain (as stated before, her teen brain was fully intact when Ido found her).
We get hints of a chance at a better life found in the floating city of Zalem that lingers over the slums, though only those cordially invited through victory in the combative cyborg sport of rollerball are able to reach it. Class divides are another common setting in which conflict can be established, and considering the current cultural climate, I often worry about whether that is a healthy indulgence at the moment. Thankfully, such discourse on the harshness of life in Iron City and the regality of Zalem is only tangentially given regard, with the film’s focus directed towards how Alita and her allies can first and foremost make something respectable out of their destitution more than anything.
That’s not say that Alita avoids opportunities to establish a conventional villainous entity with ill-gotten gains on the brain and a haunting ethereal presence at the ready, and the presumptuous hanger of an ending conceitedly hints at possible follow-ups with Zalem and its ilk in the crosshairs (strangely, there’s no after-credits scene this time around). The ever-versatile Mahershala Ali comes ready-made as an unscrupulous entrepreneur named Vector, rigging the games of rollerball to his own ends, whatever those may entail. Honestly, as far as antagonists go, this one is remarkably underdeveloped–though with a major plot reveal in mind, that may be acceptable.
Jennifer Connelly’s Chiren is another side character of whom I couldn’t quite make heads or tails. At times she seems plain sinister, other times torn between maternal instincts and professional obligations, other times still just perfunctory. As Dr. Ido, this is the first time I can recall seeing Christoph Waltz unclear about what to do in a scene. This is most likely due to Rodriguez’s shaky direction, but after about the second act, he might as well have been crying out for Tarantino to come and rescue him from the set.
Much consternation and mockery have been leveled at the choice of artificially enlarging Alita’s eyes to traditional anime-level proportions through CGI effects. Given that this is an adaptation of the Japanese comic Gunnm, I found that such a choice served both the purpose of giving stylistic reverence to the source material as well as emphasizing Alita’s inhuman nature. Trolls are gonna troll, I suppose. I, for one, found it a winsome choice that added to the character’s overall charm. In performance, design, and animation, Alita (and Alita) is an instant winner as far as I’m concerned.
Both Cameron and Rodriguez have an expansive pedigree with CGI production, and they’ve clearly given their all here. You can practically feel the sun-bleached locales and taste the sand and dust as it dances across the screen. While larger than life, the climactic battle sequences between Alita and the cyborg ne’er-do-wells who threaten her life and family for monetary gain are robust, engaging, and viscerally satisfying. The penultimate arena fight can be a little overwrought and some action scenes could have stood to be thought out a bit more, but nothing took me out of the experience for even a moment. In fact, I was eager to see it again soon. That’s not something I usually admit to.
Granted, Alita’s relationship with her beau Hugo (Keean Johnson) takes some very odd and uneasy turns for the worst (one of the drollest being a literal “I offer you my heart” scene), and her relationship with her adopted parents and community doesn’t take many turns at all. With that said, Alita: Battle Angel is really doing some good–perhaps even great–work as a manga adaptation, a sci-fi action thriller, and as just good solid fun. Some choices that earn its PG-13 rating will bar the show from the very young and sensitive, but that’s about as clean as I could expect from a writer-director team that has titles like Sin City and Terminator 2 to their names.
+ Surprisingly effective performances
+ Self-contained story
+ Charming characters
+ Fun and effective action
- Poor pacing
- Underdeveloped characters
- Action sequences are overwrought at times