Alita: Battle Angel, 2019.
Directed by Robert Rodríguez
Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Ed Skrein, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor, Jackie Earle Haley, Eiza González, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Marko Zaror, Elle LaMont, Leonard Wu, Casper Van Dien, Jeff Fahey, Idara Victor, Sam Medina and Jai Courtney.
When Alita awakens with no memory of who she is in a future world she does not recognize, she is taken in by Ido, a compassionate doctor who realizes that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of a young woman with an extraordinary past.
While it has rightfully become par for the course to criticize stories for acting as stepping stones to future installments rather than an experience that can stand on its own, it’s also important to note that there’s nothing wrong with doing such a thing if the consumer is left awestruck and breathless. Alita: Battle Angel is simultaneously a visual spectacle unlike anything ever before, also functioning as high-octane blockbuster action rooted in a nostalgic feel. They don’t make movies like this anymore, and they also never did. The technology just wasn’t there.
That’s a bold statement to throw out there considering that James Cameron (Avatar, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic) is not only a producer on the project, but had been pondering directing the film himself since the early 2000s. Take any of those three movies listed in parentheses, and accept that they are all stunningly defining visual achievements for their respective eras. As accomplished as those revered experiences are, technology still hadn’t come far enough to properly re-create this cyberpunk tale overflowing with ambitious futuristic ideas, cyborg brawls, cheesy but effective romance, apocalyptic dystopian worlds, and of course, Alita herself (a spectacular performance from Rosa Salazar devoid of cynicism, filled with eagerness to understand her previous life, and more than enough edge to strip away the illusion that she’s a pretty face with anime stylized eyes), doing justice to the acclaimed manga by Yukito Kishiro.
Admittedly, James Cameron likely could have pulled this off anytime since the release of Avatar, but the lengthy ongoing production cycles of its numerous back-to-back sequels kept Alita: Battle Angel on hiatus until passing the reins over to director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), with a screenplay from himself and Laeta Kalogridis still utilized. The point is that none of what is here could be achieved by any filmmaker or at any random point in time. As incredible as anything Andy Serkis and company have ever created working on the modern-day Planet of the Apes series, WETA Digital’s unparalleled efforts and the motion capture performance here from Rosa Salazar surpasses it on more than one occasion. At about the halfway mark is a set piece so complex from a special effects-driven perspective that it’s undeniably dazzling, and one of the rare cinematic moments enhanced by the added depth of 3-D (Fox is very adamant regarding critics and audiences alike seeing this one on the biggest and best screen possible, and justifiably so as you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t shell out the extra cash to see the film as intended. I say that as someone who vehemently hates 3-D and skipped out on an early screening of The LEGO Movie 2 simply because it was being presented in that format).
The reality is that so many CGI focused extravaganzas contain no soul; you’re going through the motions soaking up eye-popping visuals that instill no wonder as to how it was created. A far bigger crime is that those movies also give viewers no reason to care. With that said, I’m not going to sit here and hype up the narrative of Alita: Battle Angel as an amazing display of storytelling, but rather something clichéd and formulaic executed with committed acting from its strong ensemble cast (even if a few performers feel somewhat wasted and far too underdeveloped, especially when the plot demands them to reverse their alignments without clear reasoning or motivations), crisp action that never once feels messy, and graceful pacing from big moment to moment that makes each one feel… well, important even if it’s not necessarily earned due to weak characterization.
There are a lot of little details to harp on regarding the characters; it’s somewhat annoying watching Christoph Waltz’s scientist caretaker/creator to Alita repeatedly attempt controlling her/restricting her from discovering herself, her true potential, and what she is meant to accomplish. Jennifer Connelly portrays his former flame before breaking up after the loss of their daughter, making for plot points that don’t ever feel as vital as they should be to each of their own character arcs. Then there’s the love interest played by newcomer Keean Johnson that I wasn’t even sure fit into the film until the final act, but even during that confusion it’s nonetheless charming watching him and Alita interact as he teaches her about life in the 26th century, the city in the sky, and life down below, all with the magical touch seen before watching John Connor interact with the Terminator.
It’s also worth stressing that while individual characters are nowhere near as fleshed out as they could be, the film goes out of its way (far more than necessary) to do some good old-fashioned world building. The nefarious Vector (Mahershala Ali fashioned and speaking like he’s auditioning for the reboot of The Matrix, shining in the role eliciting calm and collected evil) abides by the belief that it’s better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, which should give you some kind of idea of what scrapyard, mechanical dependent, ground life is like. Everyone wants a ticket to the sky city, and unless one has high connections the only way to get there is by becoming champion at the popular sports game Motorball, which is kind of like skateboarding combined with racing and basketball all wrapped up into a demolition derby of metal.
We see the game played on the city streets (creatively using a sewer pipe as a net and half-pipes as part of the obstacle course) and glamorized in an arena packed full of attendees, and regardless of how we are seeing it played, it is always a marvel to look at. The problem is that there might be too much of a fictional sport for a film that is also about crystallizing forgotten memories, fighting for a better life, bounty hunting, human/cyborg romance, and preparing to take down an empire. It got to the point where anytime someone mentioned the sport, I wanted to groan while wishing the film would go back to Alita busting more heads. The fluidity of her movements and fighting style, coupled with the state-of-the-art special effects and ambitious battle sequences far outweigh interesting riffs on gladiator combat.
By the end of Alita: Battle Angel you won’t be barked at for forgetting what the villains want or the specificities of certain character motivations, and you will almost certainly realize that Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron have more in store (a risky roll of the dice in its own right considering Japanese anime/manga is not super popular in America and that no matter how well received or positive word-of-mouth is, international box office success will be paramount to seeing those next chapters reach fruition). You will also be hanging on every fist-pumping moment and heartbreaking piece of tragedy, craving more as soon as the credits roll. Don’t skip out on Alita: Battle Angel and then bitch Hollywood is afraid to take chances on something innovative and refreshing. Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron are both in top form here, and if there’s any justice in this world, Rosa Salazar will also become a huge name.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com