Alita: Battle Angel
It doesn't have the most original story, but this sci-fi action flick still delivers thanks to its compelling heroine and kickass fight scenes.
February 14, 2019
It's been five years since Robert Rodriguez turned in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, and a full decade since James Cameron directed Avatar. Now, though, they've teamed up to create Alita: Battle Angel, a $200+ million sci-fi blockbuster based on Yukito Kishiro's iconic 90s cyberpunk manga of the same name. Set-up wise, it's a very familiar tale. We're deep into the future (2563, to be exact), and the world continues to reel from The Fall, aka the war to end all wars. Earth's remaining cities are massively overcrowded slums resembling the favelas of modern-day Sao Paulo, whilst high above them floats Zalem — the luxurious haven for the super wealthy and elite.
In that sense, Alita is alota like 2013's Elysium and the recent Netflix series Altered Carbon, although for a refreshing change the inhabitants of the lower city aren't presented as weary, ravenous scum fighting one another for every last consumable. There's even a blue sky, regular sunlight, fresh fruit and delicious chocolate. Sure, there are the usual scavengers and rogues of various forms, but for the most part the community is exactly that — a harmonious, multicultural confederacy of peoples just trying to eek out a new life for themselves in the post-Fall world.
The hero, too, enters the story with a very familiar backstory. Alita, a damaged cyborg rescued from the trash piles of Zalem, has no memory of her past. When push comes to literal shove, however, she discovers she's possessed of extraordinary martial arts abilities and highly lethal tendencies. In other words, Jason Bourne with robot limbs. Very quickly, Alita's childlike naivety gives way to a revenge-fuelled blood lust as she seeks out those who would do her (and her loved ones) harm. Gradually, too, the memories of her previous life (and mission) begin to resurface, setting her upon a seemingly-inevitable path towards Nova, the mysterious entity pulling all the strings from high above in Zalem.
Portrayed by a digitally-enhanced Rosa Salazar, Alita is literally a wide-eyed wonder to behold. The special effects wizadry of Cameron's team has rendered her believable enough to not be distracting, yet different enough to do justice to the story's sci-fi legacy. Indeed, the majority of the film's characters carry some form of technological enhancement, ranging from simple mechanical arms to fully-fledged mech suits, most notably those 'worn' by the cyborg assassin Grewishka (a terrific Jackie Earle Haley). The myriad enhancements are gleefully displayed by Rodriguez during several scenes of motorball, a violent and frenetic sport that feels like the bastard offspring of NASCAR, Quidditch and roller derby. Basically, picture Mario Kart, but instead of spinning your opponent out with a banana, you rip their face off with a chainsaw.
In supporting roles, Christoph Waltz delivers the best and most nuanced performance as Ido, the kindly surgeon who discovers, repairs and cares for Alita. Less convincing are Jennifer Connelly as Chiren, Ido's ex-wife, and Mahershala Ali as Vector, the kingpin of motorball. Keean Johnson, who'd comfortably double for a young Colin Farrell, plays the part of Alita's would-be love interest Hugo, however their dialogue (and indeed almost all of the film's dialogue) feels punishingly awkward and unnatural. Only Ido and Alita achieve a believably tender relationship, helped by the fact that they also have the film's only fleshed out backstories.
Lack of originality notwithstanding, Alita: Battle Angel still delivers an engaging experience thanks to Rodriguez's nimble and full-throttle direction. The film's fight scenes are its strongest asset, with Alita's balletic combat offering the perfect counterpoint to her opponents' brute force. She's a terrific heroine to get behind — surefooted in her abilities, noble in her intentions and charming in her wisecracking. Whilst a sequel hasn't been confirmed, the film's ending all but demands one, and with a little more work on the scripting front, it could easily deliver a white-knuckled gangbuster of a sci-fi franchise.