‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Review: Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron Team On a Visually Spectacular Sci-Fi Film
I’m trying to imagine a scenario where I sat down to watch Alita: Battle Angel with absolutely zero knowledge of what it was or who it was by. Would I recognize it as a film directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced and co-written by James Cameron? My gut tells me I would have been shocked by Rodriguez’s involvement — the film bears almost none of the hallmarks of his previous work — but I might have guessed Cameron’s contribution.
The film’s future dystopian setting, divided clearly into the evil haves and heroic have-nots, and a love story that bridges the gulf between two distinct groups in society comes directly out of the Cameron playbook. Alita blends themes and ideas Cameron’s explored in almost all of his movies, from The Terminator to Avatar, and even Titanic. Also the dialogue is occasionally clunky, and the romance is totally, utterly, cornily sincere. I’m telling you guys, this is a James Cameron film!
Visually, Alita is also light years beyond anything in Rodriguez’s previous films, which are mostly grungy DIY thrillers like Desperado, Planet Terror, and Machete. I once toured Rodriguez’s studio facility in Austin, and the shooting space was literally a big green room and the exterior of a building. Alita is on the opposite end of the spectrum from that. It’s got a whole futuristic city, explored in surprisingly extensive detail. (Weta was in charge of many of the digital effects.) The designs of the high-tech characters — mostly cyborgs and robots — are extremely convincing.
That includes the title character, played by Rosa Salazar, who’s discovered in a 26th century garbage dump by a cybersurgeon named Dr. Dyson Ito (Christoph Waltz). He attaches her still-functioning brain and core to a cyborg body, and names her Alita. She has no memory of her previous life, but she somehow has incredible fighting abilities, and she’s drawn into a battle with the sinister rulers of the floating paradise hovering above her new home of Iron City. Their evil interests are pursued by a secretive, well-dressed man named Vector (Mahershala Ali).
That’s the main conflict, but there are all kinds of interconnected subplots as well. Those include a thread about Iron City’s robotic bounty hunters, including Ed Skrein’s Zapan, who hunt down fugitives. There’s also a weirdly extensive side story involving “motorball,” which is basically Rollerball from Rollerball meets Battlebots if the whole thing took place on one of the tracks from the Wachowski’s Speed Racer movie. As in all good dystopias, gladiatorial games are the only thing keeping the populace in line; in Alita, that diversion is motorball. Alita uses her super cyborg body to train for a motorball career with the help of her totally hunky and intensely bland love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson).
Alita is based on a manga series by Yukito Kishiro that ran for five years, and it feels at times like Cameron and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis tried to smoosh the entire thing into one two-hour movie. The results are disjointed and corny — and undeniably exciting in individual moments. The big motorball game is stunning, as is Alita’s fight with a massive cyborg played, at least facially, by Jackie Earle Haley. I kept rolling my eyes any time Alita and Hugo traded sweet nothings, but the action scenes and eye candy kept sucking me back in.
An overqualified cast (including Jennifer Connelly as Dr. Ido’s ex and Michelle Rodriguez in a small but important role) is mostly here to make a very silly movie seem slightly less silly, and on that front they succeed. (One of these talented actors — I won’t spoil who — also gets a death scene for the ages.) It does seem, though, like there’s some subtext missing. Alita barely considers any of the existential questions about humanity that are typically central to this kind of sci-fi film. It’s just a slick action film. That is one way, at least, it does feel like a Robert Rodriguez movie.
-Christoph Waltz’s character is Dr. Dyson Ido. In the original manga, the character had a different first name — and Dyson is also the name of the cybernetics expert in Cameron’s Terminator 2. That can’t be a coincidence, right?
-There’s no post-credits sequence, but pay attention in Alita’s final scene and you might spot a surprising cameo.
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