It’s honestly hard to believe that I’ve seen Alita: Battle Angel. After following the film’s production for what feels like the last ten or fifteen years, the adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Battle Angel Alita, James Cameron (Avatar, The Terminator, Titanic) has finally brought the film to life with the help of director Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Sin City). Together, the two have brought the cyberpunk world of Alita vividly to life, creating a film that is both visually appealing and wickedly fun to watch. While not a flawless adaptation, Alita: Battle Angel is a great step forward for this potential franchise.
Set in 2563, three hundred years after an event only known as “The Fall”, a man named Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained) finds the dismembered body of a cyborg woman while scouting a junkyard in Iron City for parts. After rebuilding the cyborg, they come to find she has no memory of her previous life, or what she was built for. As Ito reintroduces her to the world, he gives her the name Alita. But as the divide between the last remaining flying city of Zalem and those left alive below in Iron City grows, Alita finds that there may be more to the world – – and her past – – then those around her are telling her. Determined to unlock her past, Alita sets off to figure out the truth that binds her to Zalem, and what that means for the future of the world.
When it comes to Alita: Battle Angel, it’s easy to see where audiences might get lost in the mythology-heavy world, but to the credit of screenwriters James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, they handle a lot of the exposition in a way that is easily digestible, and never really drags the movie down. A lot of credit must also go to Robert Rodriguez, who keeps the film moving at a pretty quick pace, never stopping to pander to the audience, but instead hoping they’ll buy into the journey that he and his writers have set forward to tell. It’s always hard to balance talking down to the audience and not telling them enough, and Alita actually lands the balance fairly well.
However, while the world is great, many of the characters suffer from being underwritten, mostly there to drive the plot versus being real characters. In particular, Keean Johnson, who plays Alita’s love interest Hugo – – who, unfortunately, also feels woefully miscast – – never really does anything in the story of any interest. Every move his character makes feels like it’s directly done to drive the story, not to further the character, making for some seriously frustrating moments with him. Hugo just never feels like a full character, and unfortunately, that feels like it can be said about many of the other side characters in the film as well. While the story makes room for the world, it sadly puts a lot of character by the wayside in the process.
Thankfully though, Alita herself, who is played splendidly by Rosa Salazar, feels like a fully defined character that the audience can rally behind. It helps that Salazar is so fantastic in the role that you buy her immediately as Alita, and you feel for her as she tries to find her place in the world. There’s a real sense of wonder that she brings to the role that is palpable, making her engaging for the audience because we’ve all been in her shoes as we discover new things, as well as just how life seems to work. It’s a truly great performance that honestly saves the movie from careening off the tracks. If the audience doesn’t buy into Alita or her story, this movie would be dead in the water, but Salazar truly puts the movie on her shoulders and not only delivers a great performance but a truly memorable one as well. This is the kind of breakout performance that makes stars, and here’s hoping that Salazar gets more work from this, because she is a star on the rise.
But outside of the performances, Robert Rodriguez deserves all the creed in the world for bringing the world of Alita: Battle Angel so brilliantly to life. This film is a technical marvel, featuring some of the best motion capture on film with the work being done on Alita herself. It’s honestly truly breathtaking, and you can tell the team at WETA worked tirelessly to bring her to life. Not all the characters look nearly as great as Alita does, but across the board, the visual effects work truly is pretty stunning. Not only that, Rodriguez really makes the world feel real as well, and everything about it just pops. Post-apocalyptic worlds can feel like a dime a dozen, but this is one of the most unique feeling worlds we’ve seen on screen in some time. Everything about it feels lived in and tangible, and honestly, feels like a reflection of our current world if our society were to have a similar societal crumble. It’s easy to get lost just looking at the details of the world itself, and it’s amazing they’re able to make it work as well as they do.
If there’s one thing that really makes the movie work though it’s the action that Rodriguez brings to the table. Every action beat in Alita: Battle Angel feels fun, fresh, and visually stunning. Rodriguez brings some of his more punk rock filmmaking from his El Mariachi and Desperado days wildly to life through the lens of cyberpunk anime, delivering some action we’ve never quite seen before. In particular, the extended Motorball sequence in the film’s third act is almost so crazy that it feels like sensory overload, but at the same time, it’s never to the point that it feels too much. The line that he walks with the sequence is thin, but he makes that sequence pop like nothing you’ve seen before. That sequence alone is honestly worth the price of admission alone if you weren’t already excited to check out the film.
Alita: Battle Angel is a visually stunning piece of technical filmmaking that is also a ton of fun. While the film suffers in the character department, it doesn’t stop the action from coming fast and furious, making a truly great popcorn film for audiences. But it’s really Rosa Salazar as the titular Alita that shines, giving a performance that audiences will truly be wowed by. Honestly, there’s just so much to like about this film, and this world is so interesting, it would be a waste to only get one film. The film leaves left me wanting more of Alita and her adventures, so here’s hoping that the audiences deem Rodriguez and co. worthy of diving back into this world. This is a treat early in the year for film fans that they won’t want to miss.