There’s almost no way to fully take in everything on display in Alita: Battle Angel, the latest from director and co-writer Robert Rodriguez. He also worked on this long-on-the-shelf script from James Cameron (and later Laeta Kalogridis) that’s based on the graphic novel Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. The detail, depth and beauty of the universe that has been built to house this story is too vast to absorb it all in one sitting. But I can say with some authority that to truly appreciate and judge Alita, you should make an effort to see it in 3D and in a Dolby Atmos presentation, because it has clearly been designed to be viewed in a way that floods the senses so completely that you might leave your body momentarily.
Set in the year 2563, Alita is as much a family drama as it is a science-fiction adventure story, and both elements work to varying degrees. The story opens with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) sifting through massive junk piles dumped down from a floating city above the dilapidated Earth where only the elite and powerful live, while the unwashed masses scrape by below. Looking for usable cyborg parts, Ido find the torso of a female cyborg that he names Alita (motion captured and voiced by Rosa Salazar) and ends up giving her a high-tech body that was going to go to his now-dead daughter. It doesn’t take long for Alita to realize she has an incredible set of fighting skills and strengths, and what’s fascinating is that in some scenes you can watch the multitude parts of her robot skeleton move and react while under attack.
Of course, Alita is also still just a teenage girl, and is susceptible to the charms of a handsome young man, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who doesn’t see robot parts, but likes her for the sexy cyborg that she is. The problem is that Alita has lost most of her memory, in the way many movie and TV characters do—first moments come back in flashes and then in mystery-solving waves of scenes and sequences. When the excessive nature of her full powers begin to make themselves known, it become clear that Alita was built as a weapon, not a friendly domestic helper or self-driving car.
The movie introduces us to a host of characters who are interesting to varying degrees. Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, Ido’s ex-wife who recognizes something in Alita that she may ultimately need to take to please her boss Vector (Mahershala Ali), head of Motorball, a sports league that’s basically cyborgs playing roller derby. Thrown into the mix is a black market practice of cyborgs getting attacked by roving street gangs and ripped to shreds for parts to enhance the Motorball players for said sporting event. I believe it’s illegal in this futuristic society, but it’s not really enforced because, surprise surprise, cyborgs aren’t considered human by many humans (I smell a metaphor).
Some of the best moments in Alita: Battle Angel involve the presence of some of these particularly nasty cyborgs; they are clearly created via motion capture but are rendered in ways that range from awe inspiring to eerie. Ed Skrein plays the bounty hunter Zapan, and while his face is recognizable, his body is all sinewy metal and sharp angles. The same cannot be said for Jackie Earle Haley’s massive cyborg Grewishka, who is roughly the size of a medium-sized tank with a barely recognizable face attached. It’s an impressive display of special effects but the performance itself is almost lost in the CGI. The one thing that didn’t bother me is the look of Alita herself. I know a lot people are bothered by her oversized eyes, which are meant to appear large as a way of paying tribute to her manga roots. I’m actually a great admirer of Salazar as an actor, but Alita’s oversized eyes actually make her incredibly expressive, while never letting us forget that there is something slightly off and mysterious about her origins. If she looked entirely human, she’d be far less interesting as a creation.
As impressive at the movie magic may be here, nearly every turn of the plot, every double cross and memory reveal is predictable to some degree. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Alita was designed as the ultimate weapon, and when Ido eventually does swap out her body for one made from forbidden technology from bygone era, she is able to embrace all that she is capable of, for better or worse. The way the film ends makes it seem like the first part of something bigger, but I feel fairly confident that there won’t be another Alita movie at these production prices. Which is a shame, because there’s a character/actor reveal in the final moments that would certainly make for an interesting second act.
The film plays to director Rodriguez’s strength, which is making the strange and unknown seem familiar to us and those in the story. That makes sense, since everyone in the movie has lived with this technology and these circumstances their entire life. Sadly, this doesn’t stop the screenplay from leaning too hard into exposition-heavy dialogue and almost more plot than a two-hour movie can contain. Still, for all of its familiarity and predictability, I still found Alita: Battle Angel a fantastic visual experience and fun virtual ride, with just enough of the unexpected thrown in to keep things interesting.
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