The Pitch: After many years of behind-the-scenes effort, Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Battle Angel Alita has finally come to vivid big-screen life. In 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event known as The Fall, the remainder of all sentient life on Earth has concentrated itself within Iron City, a vast ground-level metropolis of ramshackle buildings and criminals of every variety. Above it, the glorious sky city of Zalem hovers, a tantalizing promise of luxury for all of Iron City’s most idealistic residents. From day to day, however, it’s a haven of bounty hunters, criminals, and thieves who tear the limbs from cyborgs and sell them on the black market. Only the dream of Zalem, and the violent delights of the popular humanoid death derby game Motorball, offer respite from the daily grind of Iron City.
While foraging in a scrapyard one day, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) happens upon the remains of a young cyborg girl, and brings her home to his cutting-edge bionics lab to give her a body, shelter, and a name: Alita (Rosa Salazar). The curious, enthusiastic young woman may not be able to remember anything, but she’s immediately struck by what she sees as the wonder of Iron City. Soon, however, it’s clear that Alita was somebody else before Dr. Ido found her, that most of the people around her are concealing hidden lives of their own, and that whoever and whatever she used to be could mean that she’s in grave danger. Luckily, she also happens to have the physical instincts of an elite warrior, which end up coming in handy before long.
Peaks and Valleys: Whatever you might make of Alita: Battle Angel, the film is definitely an emphatic two-hour treatise on the cinematic concept of “going for broke”. Director Robert Rodriguez, working from a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and longtime IP holder James Cameron, offers up a vision of the future that invokes future-shock science fiction from The Fifth Element to Dark City to Blade Runner and onward, while establishing its own uniquely weightless sense of style along the way. Whatever you might think of Cameron’s obsession with film as a conduit for modern technological advancement, it’s undeniable that his imprint exists all over Alita: Battle Angel, a film which draws direct attention to its dizzying layers of artistically rendered artifice at every possible moment.
No discussion of the film’s ambitious CG creations can start anywhere other than with Alita herself, who Salazar portrays in motion capture as the film exaggerates her anime-huge eyes and impossibly fluid movements alike for stylistic effect. While technology still hasn’t entirely bridged the uncanny valley gap of making a CG character’s movements look fluid against physical sets, an occasional distraction here as well, the meticulous detail of Alita as a character creation is often overwhelming. From her pores to her evocative physicality (Salazar does incredible work matching Alita’s “aging” with subtle shifts in the way her robotic movements function), Alita is an often jaw-dropping feat of filmmaking from scene to scene. Perhaps the best compliment one could pay to the film, and to Salazar’s work at its center, is that every so often, you’ll have to stop and remind yourself that its protagonist isn’t entirely human.
The Dismemberment Plan: Alita works in a number of different modes, but it’s an action movie above all, and the action is one of the film’s calling cards. Rodriguez makes the endless rooftops and gangways of Iron City integral to so many of the film’s fight and/or chase setpieces, constantly establishing the outer limits of his boundless world as the film rolls along. While it sometimes struggles to match that sense of invention in its storytelling, the visual splendor of Alita often overwhelms most of the concerns you could have. The heights induce terrifying vertigo, the catacombs under the city threaten violence around every corner.
And when that violence ensues, as it frequently does throughout, Rodriguez has a ball matching the sleek, almost graceful nature of Alita’s moves with the hard-clubbing violence of so many of her robotic rivals. The film never feels more like a Robert Rodriguez movie than when the director gets to cut loose, liberally abusing the ability to tear the film’s androids apart with the same level of grisly invention as he once brought to From Dusk Till Dawn. Heads are severed, limbs ripped off in streets, bodies hurled into gigantic rotating gears to the tune of screams. If these weren’t robots, Alita would be one of the most violent big-studio releases in years. But even accounting for the fact that they are robots, the film spends enough time considering their humanity that the violence is at turns playful and earnestly unsettling.
Every World Under One Roof: In case you haven’t gathered by now that Alita: Battle Angel is as much a wild assemblage of mismatched parts as most of its characters, here’s an abbreviated list of additional movies this writer thought about during the film: Total Recall, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Speed Racer, Rollerball, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Jupiter Ascending, Star Wars, and Elysium. At points the film touches on the topics of intergalactic warfare, the ethics of bloodsport, young adult romance, body politics, psychic control, bounty hunting, and at times the majority of those collide with one another in the same scene. If Alita is consistently remarkable in its visual feats, the screenplay’s ability to match that sense of fluidity fades in and out with frequency.
It’s not that Cameron and Kalogridis’ screenplay is necessarily bad, although the film’s reliance on cornball one-liners exhausts its welcome before long. It simply attempts to do so much at once in adapting its complex source material for audiences accustomed to rousing action that, inevitably, it sprints through ideas so breathlessly that most of its subplots wind up feeling equally underdeveloped. Alita’s budding attraction to Hugo (Keean Johnson), a bad-boy scrap forager, feels lifted from a different and more dated young heroine’s story, Vector (Mahershala Ali) spends about as much of his screen time functioning as a mouthpiece for another character as he does as himself, and the film never even seems to decide on whether the mysterious Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) is a morally complicated hero or an inscrutable antagonist. Considering the film’s tendency to introduce the audience to information long before its characters, there’s a substantial deal of waiting throughout Alita, time which could have been spent on character and is instead burned off on hit-or-miss banter.
The Verdict: Even in an era where what was once geek culture is now a billion-dollar mainstream industry, Alita: Battle Angel is such a defiantly geeky sci-fi film that it’s hard not to marvel at it existing at all. It’s not so much heady as thrilling, less cerebral than surreal. It’s a young-warrior story told with such unabashed earnestness at every level that even its shortcomings eventually fade from immediate view. Immersion means a great deal in movies like this, and Rodriguez and his cast and crew conjure up the kind of boundary-free world that will no doubt attract its share of new devotees in the years to come.
Alita: Battle Angel demands no shortage of suspended disbelief before it’s over, but those willing to make the trade will find the kind of ambitious grand-scale filmmaking that audiences exhausted of carbon-copy franchise movies are always calling for. Like its unstoppable heroine, Alita: Battle Angel is something strange and unique and special, built from the finest repurposed parts.
Where’s It Playing? Everywhere worldwide, just in time for a very different kind of Valentine’s Day.