Alita: Battle Angel

2019-02-15 09:52
Alita, voiced by Rosa Salazar, in a scene from Ali


Hundreds of years in the future, much of the world lays in ruins as a nuclear World War between Earth’s sky-cities have decimated humanity. One of the planet’s last remaining sky-cities, Tiphares, hovers above a place known simply as Scrapyard City, so named because it is literally a dumping ground for the trash and waste coming from the affluent city above it. When biomechanical expert, Dr. Ido, finds a cyborg head amongst the heaps of garbage routinely discarded from Tiphares, he attaches the head to a mechanical body that he made for his deceased daughter. The transplant is a success but the cyborg has no idea who she is or where she’s from so Ido adopts her as his own and names her Alita. It quickly becomes clear, though, that there is a lot more to Alita than either of them could have imagined and so begins a search to piece together her past and, in doing so, setting off a chain of events that might just change the relationship between the two cities forever.


Based on the classic manga by Yukito Kishiro. Battle Angel Alita (or Gunnm in Japanese), Alita: Battle Angel – a pointless and inferior rearrangement of the original title – has been in the works for years. Originally planned as a James Cameron project, Cameron, who remains on as producer and co-wrote the script with Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez, handed over the directorial reins of the long-gestating adaptation to Rodriguez.

Presumably, Cameron was too busy putting together the fifty-eight Avatar sequels to actually direct the film, but his fingerprints are still all over the final result. His dialogue has only gotten more cringe-worthy as the years have gone by and Alita is pretty much par for the course. Even Christoph Waltz, who normally delivers dialogue like no one else and holds the distinction of being the greatest interpreter of Quentin Tarantino’s verbose scripts to date, struggles to bring any life to the film’s clunky dialogue.

On the flip side, Cameron is still a trailblazer in terms of special effects and a true visionary who makes all of his films, no matter how otherwise wonky, breathtakingly cinematic. Alita: Battle Angel has some stunning special effects, immaculate design-work and enough visual spectacle to remind us why Cameron’s silly Smurf-Pocahontas-in-Space movie was such a big deal in the first place. For good or bad – and, despite both very positive and very negative reviews, it is a mixture of both – Alita is the quintessential James Cameron film.

And yet, of course, this isn’t technically a James Cameron film. It’s Robert Rodriguez’s baby. And Cameron couldn’t have picked a better collaborator to bring his vision to the screen. Rodriguez made his name on the Mariachi trilogy and From Dusk Till Dawn in the 1990s and has spent much of this century alternating between kid-friendly adventure films like Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl and adults-only comic book adaptations and “ground house” knockoffs like Sin City, Machete and Planet Terror but the one constant throughout his career has been that he is one of the very few directors who brings plenty of style to his films but who modulates that style according to whatever the genre, audience or screenwriter demands.

What this means, simply, is that Rodriguez has, through his own substantial skills as a director, made a purely James Cameron blockbuster as only James Cameron can make it. It’s quite a lot shorter than most of Cameron’s later work and there’s little of the laughably inept eco-friendly messaging of Avatar but you wouldn’t be alone in seeing this film as a little sister to Cameron’s most recent (ten years and counting) and extravagant blockbuster. 

Like most of both Cameron and Rodriguez’s past work, Alita: Battle Angel is a textbook example of style triumphing over substance. Alita doesn’t, in fact, have any substance whatsoever. Despite featuring a plot that covers similar ground to the likes of Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, Alita has zero interest in exploring any of themes that were at the heart of those films – or, for that matter, any of the other dozens of science fiction works that it also draws quite obvious inspiration from. It also seems to have little problem featuring, along with that tin-ear for dialogue: haphazard, convoluted plotting; two-dimensional characterisation; and, oh yes, no real ending. I haven’t read the manga or seen the anime based on it but it’s hard to imagine that the original Battle Angel Alita was anywhere this disinterested in the basics of storytelling or in the allegorical possibilities so inherent in its premise.

And yet, in fine James Cameron form, Alita: Battle Angel almost gets away with it. There’s too much promise in the story being told here to fully forgive how under-achieving it is on a narrative or thematic level but the sheer amount of spectacle on display here very nearly makes you overlook that bare-ass naked emperor running through it. Whether it’s the stunning visual-world-building or the flawlessly executed and varied action scenes, this is a stunning, endlessly-engaging treat for the eyes and ears that absolutely should be seen in a cinema capable of doing it justice. You can skip the 3D version, of course, but this is actually one of the very few times that the 3D didn’t overly bother me.

The film is not quite all about its gilt and flash, though. The spectacle is reason enough to see it but, actually, so is the title character herself. Despite dwelling in the uncanny valley (her huge, anime-style eyes actually leaven this somewhat by pulling her closer to the cartoony side of that particular curve), Alita is something of a motion-performance marvel and, most importantly, a character who is very, very easy to like. Rosa Salazar is the human actor in the mo-cap suit and she helps make Alita plucky, wide-eyed innocent and kick-ass all in one go, while also remembering that, cyborg or not, she is still a teenage girl at heart. The film features the likes of Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali in supporting roles but this is Alita’s film and, fortunately, Salazar gives what is easily the film’s best performance.   

And for all that the film is indisputably all about style over substance, it’s Salazar and Alita herself who provide enough humanity to make sure that Alita: Battle Angel isn’t an entirely vacuous experience.

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