Alita: Battle Angel, 2019.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Michelle Rodriguez, Keean Johnson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Eiza Gonzalez, Mahershala Ali, Lana Condor, Casper Van Dien and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.
An action-packed story of one young woman’s journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.
The last time the world bore witness to one of Robert Rodriguez’s movies was the dull Sin City sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Rodriguez is better known for his smaller budgeted (by Hollywood standards) films, though he is no stranger to the young-adult sci-fi action genre. His Spy Kids franchise is a testament to that. Yet, the world hasn’t seen him at the helm of a conventional, mega-blockbuster, co-produced by none other than James Cameron.
Set 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to as The Fall, Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) rummages through mountain trash dropped from the last remaining sky city above, where he discovers the head and spinal column of a cyborg. Dr Ido’s latest passion project is to rebuild her and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). Iron City, a world inhabited by humans with metallic appendages doesn’t make Alita unique, but Dr Ido sees something else in her. What then unfolds is an introduction to more characters, more world building exposition, and more bloated scenes.
The film’s clumsy exposition-heavy opening act is a chore to sit through. Alita becomes the body for Dr Ido and street kid Hugo (Keean Johnson) to explain the world to the audience. The quasi-honour code of bounty hunting, the desire for some to return to the sky city, the rules of the gladiatorial-style rollerblading are told at Alita, and by proxy the audience.
It doesn’t calm down there, either. The film has to rush through and introduce every character that’s important to the story; the main antagonist Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his partner / Dr Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connolly); the smart-mouthed bounty-hunter cyborg Zapan (Ed Skrein); the motivations, the power, the rules, the world et al. Heavy, world-building exposition makes for an exhausting opening 40 minutes.
However, it is essential the film does this to establish everything, and it does reward patient viewers.
The performances from the entire cast are terrific, with Waltz providing a rare, restrained performance; arguably his best since Django Unchained. Salazar seamlessly portrays the naive, teenage Alita who falls in love with the first boy she sees. You forget that she’s 33 years old. The romance between Alita and Hugo is at times sweet, at times corny, and at times messy, but there is some chemistry.
Rodriquez carries his visual flair from his Spy Kids franchise, whilst retaining the cyberpunk aesthetic. The bombastic and larger-than-life cyborg character designs and use of colour to signify allegiances and character motivation shows a filmmaker utilising his visual craft. He also proves he can direct good action sequences, even for a 12A/PG-13 film.
Once the action unfolds, audiences are in for a visual thrill ride. Action sequences are depicted to gain a rating suitable for young teenagers, but it’s clear director Rodriguez is pushing to see how far he can things. The original Manga was intended for a mature audience, which allowed the violence to be much more red-bloody. Here, the film utilises the cyborg aesthetic and takes advantage of a ludicrous film censorship loophole, and switch the cyborg’s blood colour from red to blue. Limbs are hacked and heads decapitated, but no red blood. So 12A/PG-13 rating granted.
It’s also the blend of over-the-top CG spectacle with great fight choreography. Audiences will be left tense through many of the fight scenes. In knowing that limbs can be hacked, or parts of a cyborg will be harvested by scavengers, this makes for tense viewing.
Alita: Battle Angel is that strange blockbuster that is smart enough to respect the audience and to not take itself too seriously, but daft enough to have some out there visuals and silly gags. Just get over the clumsy and messy opening act to get to the good stuff.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★