James Reviews - 'Alita: Battle Angel'
The brain-child of Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron is a solid, dazzling futuristic tale.
Anime and manga adaptations have been a tricky subject for Hollywood, and when I say "tricky" I mean "they manage to make it so horrendously awful." However, after 2017s Ghost in the Shell, there are hints that they're learning and getting better at bringing the source material to the screen. With Alita: Battle Angel, it's safe to say that the age of good live-action anime movies may finally be upon us. Sure there's some melodramatic acting and villains that never become three-dimensional characters, but the action is packed with excitement and Rodriguez's style is found all over the place.
The film starts off in the year 2563, with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finding the remains of a disembodied cyborg with a fully functional human brain in the scrapyard of Iron City. He attaches it to a new body to the brain and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar) after he deceased daughter. Shortly after waking up—with no memory of her past—Alita runs into Dr. Idos' estranged ex-wife Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), befriends a boy named Hugo, and learns about Zalem, the city that hovers in the sky above them. It's a solid introduction to the world of the movie, as well as the characters that inhabit it, but some of the dialogue feels very basic and the delivery isn't much better. Alita is clearly meant to be this fish-out-of-water character with special abilities, yet the pacing of the film moves at an awkward pace, stopping and starting. Fortunately, it lingers on only for the opening scenes and the movie find its rhythm as it progresses.
Alita quickly becomes proficient at a battle royale racing sport called Motorball, which is where we get introduced to our villain Vector (Mahershala Ali), an entrepreneur of the Factory, Iron Citys' governing authority. Although he has control over his own actions, he also serves as a proxy for Nova, a mad scientist who can hack other people's brains and transfer his consciousness into them. It's fitting that the antagonist of the movie is a shell for a greater evil, since Vector feels exactly that. Now, Ali is a talented actor, capable of turning a great performance out of any role, but he's not given a lot of material to work with. Outside of the actors' iconic look and a Paradise Lost quote, there's nothing memorable about this character.
Speaking of looks, the visual effects are incredible and the overall look of the film is a feast for the eyes. It's not hard to see why Cameron was attached to the project for a decade; the world beckons for exploration in this cyberpunk vision of the future. The action of the film is well executed and a sense of style that could only be pulled off by Robert Rodriguez. About halfway through the movie, Alita and Hugo try to recruit these bounty hunters called Hunter-Warriors to take on a cyborg criminal working for Nova, and a bar fight erupts after being provoked by Zapan (Ed Skrein). The entire sequence feels reminiscent of the grindhouse style where Rodriguez made his bones in film-making and—in some small way—is a throwback to Camerons' own Terminator 2. There's another sequence where she participates in a Motorball tournament—where participants getting killed on the track is part of the game—and it's filmed with both fluidity and consistency that it puts other dystopian action set-pieces to shame.
The story is another "hero-can't-remember-their-past" origin tale, but because Alita is given traits of curiosity and friendliness, it makes her instantly likeable and adds sense of humanity, even if it does come across as melodramatic from time to time. That's not to say she can't be a mean fighting machine when she needs to be, after the aforementioned bar fight, she gets attacked by said cyborg criminal and engages in brutal combat, topping off with the best use of an f-bomb in a PG-13 you will see in a long time. When it comes the quieter moments of the movie, some of the best parts focus on the chemistry between Salazar and Waltz, with a strong sense of a father-daughter relationship that feels amplified upon the reveal that Alita was the name of Idos' actual deceased child. However, the relationship between our titular hero and Hugo—especially the romantic aspect—feels rushed and underdeveloped. Granted, it's part of the manga, but it could have been improved upon.
Despite delays in release dates, along with preconceptions and judgmental speculation that comes with these sort of adaptations, Alita: Battle Angel is a pleasant surprise. It's equal parts sci-fi, action and family drama, the focus is squarely on telling an entertaining futuristic tale. Don't hesitate to give it a watch, it's well worth your time.
Rating: 7/10 - Good