Assembled from the scrapyard of a nine-volume run of cult mangas from the 90s, Alita: Battle Angel is the joint production of director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron. Looking at it from a distance, you might assume the costly mega-manga adaptation were more the work of the later. And that’s anything but a ding. Alita has the look and feel of a Cameron sci-fi epic. The world building is sprawling. The effects are tip-top. The spectacle is massive. There’s a reason the blockbuster guru said that the “only way” to experience his latest was in a theater. He wasn’t lying.
You’ll want to see Alita with a booming stereo, on the biggest IMAX screen, popcorn a’crunchin’, or you might as well not bother. Much like Avatar, this movie is its scale and the delivery is lost watching in the wrong format. Outside of being a purely theatrical experience, being cut from the JC cloth has other drawbacks. Though few can compete with Cameron’s edge-of-tech visual mastery, his storytelling prowess has never been quite as impressive. Even Avatar (still to this day the highest grossing movie of all time) drew criticism for its derivative plot and vanilla characters. Similarly, the man’s knack for dialogue has earned more derision than fanfare, and for good reason. It’s pretty milquetoast when it’s not flat-out childish or cringy. So too can Cameron’s films be pocked with sore thumb casting or bland leads (sorry Sam Worthington but, yes, I do mean you). To an extent, Alita: Battle Angel shares similar highs and lows as the aforementioned blockbusting crown-holder. In adapting the tale of a powerful cyborg with no memories of her past, Cameron (who also gets a screenwriting credit here) and Rodriguez go broad. They make this story as universal and global as possible. Adapting anime to the big screen historically hasn’t worked but this approach by and large does. Alita succeeds on its visual storytelling alone and could be played atop Junkie XL’s beefy score to similar result. Their’s isn’t a novel tale so much as it is a cool remix of ideas. In essence, their take feels a bit like Pinocchio meets Jason Bourne. All child-like wonder. All instinctual ass-kicking.
Rosa Salazar is the titular Alita, a robotic relic with the eyes of a Margaret Keane painting. Discovered in a junkyard by Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido, Alita is reconstructed and brought back to life in Iron City, a dystopian noirish mega-city where guns are punishable by death, hunter-warriors search the streets for bounties, and a popular stadium sport called Motorball rules the local economy and attention.
The movie lives and dies by Salazar’s convincing performance. As played by Salazar, Alita is a chipper spirit, awed by the many wonders of her newly-discovered world, but fixed in the shell of a total badass. Salazar is a joy to watch, especially as she begins to discover her innate talents for ancient cyborg martial arts. Through her oversized eyes, we experience the sense of wonder that comes standard print with a James Cameron package. Too bad so much capital is wasted on a tepid romantic plot between her and meaty boy-toy Hugo (Keean Johnson) who, among other things, introduces Alita to the deliciousness of chocolate and snogging.
When Alita goes full-throttle on the action spectacle, it’s a neuron-firing beauty to behold. Between the massive scale Motorball stadium matches, the physics-bending melee match-ups, and rock-em-sock-em street brawls, Alita has an iron grasp on FX wizardry and alluring action blocking. Turning what could have been a busy eyesore into a masterfully choreographed wide-eyed maelstrom of movie magic. Dazzling effects is the spoonful of sugar to help the often stilted dialogue and occasionally hammy acting go down but there are other issues at play that aren’t as easily overlooked. Especially with peepers that pronounced.
For a two-hour wanna-be franchise-starter, Alita simply boasts both too many characters. Between Mahershala Ali’s underworld kingpin Vector, his ambitious right-hand doctor/sidekick Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ed Skrein’s cybernetic sword-wielding Zapan, and rebooting hardbody brute Grewishka (Jackie Earl Haley), Alita runs afoul a rogue’s gallery of villains to best. Somehow fitting all this in between her chasing down a serial killer, falling in love, enlisting as a hunter-warrior, investigating her origin, and becoming a sporting champion. Also the chocolate and snogging bit.
There’s no shortage of story to go around and Rodriguez and Cameron structure Alita as an escalating web of expositional drive and huge action set piece. Pacing can be problematic, especially in the overlong second act, but just when Alita: Battle Angel threatens to truly become a bore, it whacks back with another larger-than-life set piece and steals your attention back. With so much at bat, there are large swatches of the film that go undeveloped. Characters such as Connelly’s Chiren feel as though the bulk of her edit was left on the cutting room floor while Alita’s romance with Hugo, though dominating too much screen time, never really connects and drives the heart of the movie in quite the way it means to. The only relationship that popped was the one forged between our not-human heroine and Waltz’s Dr. Ido, their surrogate father-daughter relationship the beating heart of this cyborgian space opera.
With so much crammed into a single movie, it’s fair to expect some kind of satisfying conclusion. Some kind of wrap-up to Alita’s existential queries and her quest to find a modicum of justice in an unjust futurescape. But this is where Alita really sours and dropped a significant measure in my book, the film abruptly ending with the biggest cliffhanger since Empire Strikes Back. The big difference being that we were assured a third entry in the Star Wars universe whereas Alita: Battle Angel could very easily crash and burn at the box office like a fiery zephyr, or better yet a great Sky City, taking down the potential to see a proper conclusion to this otherwise satisfying story.
CONCLUSION: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is a massive-scale sci-fi soap that reflects the technical perfection one can expect with James Cameron’s involvement that also smuggles in his taste for stilted dialogue and a feckless romantic plot. The fact that it ends on a massive cliffhanger is a disappointment.
For other reviews, interviews, and featured articles, be sure to: