A film review by Craig J. Koban February 28, 2019

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL jjj
˝    

2019, PG-13, 122 mins.

 

Rosa Salazar as Alita  /  Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido  /  Ed Skrein as Zapan  /  Mahershala Ali as Vector  /  Jennifer Connelly as Chiren  /  Keean Johnson as Hugo  /  Michelle Rodriguez as Gelda  /  Lana Condor as Koyomi  /  Jackie Earle Haley as Grewishka  /  Eiza González as Nyssiana  /  Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Tanji  /  Marko Zaror as Ajakutty  /  Casper Van Dien as Amok

Directed by Robert Rodriguez  /  Written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis

 

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

Considering that he began his career with remarkable modesty back in the mid-90s making an introductory feature film that cost a measly $7000, it's a staggering experience to witness Robert Rodriguez play within the multi-million dollar budgeted sandbox that is ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the new futuristic sci-fi action film that has been a long gestating dream of writer/producer James Cameron for decades.  Based on the beloved manga series GUNNM by Yukito Kishiro, Cameron has attempted for years to make a large scale blockbuster that would do the comic book justice, but unfortunately got sidetracked with other projects, like a little know property called AVATAR (that, and the VFX technology of years past probably couldn't have done Kishiro's series ample justice).   

After originally being announced in 2003, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL has finally seen big screen treatment (with Cameron delegating directorial duties to Rodriguez), and if you excuse some meandering scripting and an under cranked villain, the resulting film is worth the wait as an absolutely stunning and jaw dropping visual and technological triumph.  There's rarely a moment on screen here that doesn't contain some digital fakery, but one of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL's successes is that it places respectful focus beyond its cutting edge and pioneering visual effects to develop the titular character into a winning hero.  Even though she's completely the product of CGI, Alita emerges as such an engaging personality worthy of our rooting interest in her, so much so that you start to forget early on in the narrative that she's a glossy and utterly convincing piece of movie magic.  Very few movies have so audaciously blurred the Uncanny Valley line as well as this one, which makes what Rodriguez and Cameron have achieved here all the more special. 

 

 

Opening with obligatory title cards and panning vistas, ALITA relays a world of 2563 that was once devastated by "The Fall" or "Great War" that left the Earth a nearly inhospitable post-apocalyptic wasteland.  In the junkyard metropolis of Iron City a cyborg scientist, Dr. Dyson Ido (a refreshingly reigned in Christoph Waltz), scavenges through an unfathomably large pile of rubble and discovers the remains of a cybernetic warrior, albeit in multiple pieces.  Her head, thankfully, is intact, which houses a healthy and still functioning human brain.  He brings all of these pieces back to his lab and begins the meticulous process of re-building her body and reactivating her.  He names her Alita (played via motion capture by THE MAZE RUNNER trilogy's Rosa Salazar), but when she awakens she has virtually no memories of her past and spends her first few days trying to acclimate to her new Frankensteined body and the larger city around her. 

She's befriended by one of Ido's associates, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who takes it upon himself to show her around and include her in his friend circle's daily activities.  Not so enthused about Alita's rebirth is Ido's ex-wife, Chiren (an icy cold Jennifer Connelly), who's miffed that her husband used the mechanical body of their deceased child to make Alita live again.  Alita, with the enthusiasm of a wide eyed child, has a hard time staying put in her "father's" lab, especially seeing as she wants to take in everything the outside world has to offer.  One fateful night she follows Ido when he leaves home, only to discover a darker aspect of his occupational life, during which time her subconsciously buried programming as a deadly soldier with limitless dexterity and power emerges, much to her and Ido's astonishment.  Ido and Alita try to keep her abilities a tightly guarded secret, but she eventually finds herself caught in the nefarious crosshairs of Vector (recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), a criminal mastermind and business CEO that oversees and runs a vicious gladiatorial sport called "Motorball" with an iron fist.  He's in cahoots with the omnipotent ruler of the wealthy and opulent sky city that floats above the trash city on the ground, and both of them conspire to eradicate what they see as a newfound threat in Alita.  She, rather predictably, has other ideas. 

The world building, art direction, and production design on confident display in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is pretty extraordinary, with both Cameron and Rodriguez no strangers to pushing filmmaking boundaries to tell propulsive, high energy stories (this is also not Rodriguez's first trip down adapting comic books to the screen, having previously made one of the most stylishly faithful ever in 2005's SIN CITY).  ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL quickly and convincingly draws you into its futuristic world of decay and rebirth, but great attention is also paid to filling the frame with the level of minute detail that makes all great out of body escapist films feel truly immersive.  Featuring epically scaled cinematography by Bill Pope and much of the VFX team from Cameron's AVATAR, Rodriguez presents a world of tomorrow that's bleak, yet colorful and inordinately advanced.  The film also displays great sinister creativity in envisioning, for example, the "Hunter Warriors" that are hot on Alita's trail, which are 95% robotic and 5% human, but the effects work here is so seamless and credible that they all come off as frighteningly tangible antagonists. 

Like STAR WARS before it, ALITA: BATTLE ANGLE feels like an amalgam of the old with the new in terms of drawing visual and thematic inspiration from past films and other sci-fi/fantasy sources and fusing them with its own cutting edge aesthetic.  The notion of a downtrodden junk city living lowly underneath the rich and powerful city dwellers of the floating oasis above has echoes of METROPOLIS and the recent ELYSIUM, whereas the multi-ethnic hodgepodge of cultures of the neon-hued junk cityscapes has more than a fleeting resemblance to THE FIFTH ELEMENT and BLADE RUNNER.  The Motorball sport itself (which is presented in some of the film's many  bombastic and sensationally scaled action sequences) reminded me of ROLLERBALL as well.  That's not to say that ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is woefully derivative, though, but rather visually and thematically echoes past sources in telling its own narrative with unique spins on typical genre material.   

All of the bravura eye candy in the world is all for naught if a film fails on a story and character level, and one of the finest things that ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL nails is having a sense of intimacy with its personas while showcasing their plight in endlessly awe inspiring visuals.  Rodriguez has made a large scale sci-fi blockbuster that also feels small at the same time; he imbues the story with a heart while exploring its mostly non-human lead character.  And Alita is a fascinating creation, with her diminutive and unassuming adolescent frame and anime inspired eyes; it's initially hard to fathom that there's a kick ass and extremely dangerous programmed assassin lurking beneath this meager facade.  Plus, there's a wounded melancholy to her as well, seeing as she's hundreds of years old and was essentially the last of her kind that was unceremoniously dumped with other garbage to lay dormant forever.  Teenagers have it rough, but few are left to waste in a junk heap for centuries.   

The real star of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is not its effects and incredible action set pieces, but rather the stellar motion captured performance by Salazar, who has the very difficult and thankless task of making the synthetic looking heroine look, feel, and sound, well, human.  Yes, Alita herself is arguably one of the most nuanced and realistic humanoid computer generated characters ever to grace a movie, but the core to this character's strength is in how Salazar creates an appealingly layered and memorable character that's mostly augmented by effects.  She has to evoke a young woman of emotional frailties and uncertainties while also showing Alita as headstrong, confident, and, when she needs to be, lethal when combating the evils of the world she so desperately wants to inhabit.  I thoroughly applaud the visual effects artisans that have pushed photo realism to the next level with Alita, but she's a character that stays with audiences throughout the story because Salazar taps into her humanity.  Yes, she's a doll-like machine that could pull your arms out with one aggressive yank, but she's also a character of relatable emotional frailties. 

Rodriguez and Cameron hit a few creative road blocks along the way and stumble from time to time, especially when it comes to expositional particulars.  The source material for ALITA is as jam-packed as it comes with mythology, and sometimes the resulting film feels hastily jam packed in trying to establish this massive manga universe.  The central and budding love story between Alita and the streetwise and potentially untrustworthy Hugo hits many perfunctory beats (granted, there's one touching, yet somewhat macabre scene when Alita literally takes her iron heart out of her mechanical chest cavity to offer it to the young man to show her devotion).  I also wished that Mahershala Ali's character was a bit more fleshed out as a worthy screen villain, and considering the enormity of the actor's immense talents, I feel that his underwritten baddie here never fully harnesses his skill set as a quietly powerful actor.  The villain ties into the film's semi-cliffhanger ending, which provides less resolution than what I would have liked and opts for setting up a potentially larger threat in another ALITA adventure that may or may not come. 

Yet, despite these nitpicky issues, I remain wholeheartedly blown away by ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, and the effective dynamic duo pairing of Rodriguez and Cameron have lovingly and painstakingly crafted a masterful triumph of sights and sounds that pays great respect to the literary source material without feeling too slavish to it.  This is a sci-fi epic that feels rich and lived in, and it's an enthralling world that's easy to get lost in (you feel transported to this strange and beguiling future instead of just feeling like you're watching a VFX highlight reel).  And unlike oh-so-many visual effects heavy sci-fi and action pictures that dominate the multiplexes these days, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL delivers on requisite levels of exhilarating action and spectacle while also gracing its story with an empathetic hero at its core that's given atypical depth.  Alita may be a manufactured being cobbled together from spare parts, but there's nothing artificial about her soul.

  H O M E