Alita: Battle Angel

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez (based on the graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro)
Stars: Rosa Salazar (Alita), Christoph Waltz (Dr. Dyson Ido), Jennifer Connelly (Chiren), Mahershala Ali (Vector), Ed Skrein (Zapan), Jackie Earle Haley (Grewishka), Keean Johnson (Hugo), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Tanji), Lana Condor (Koyomi), Idara Victor (Nurse Gerhad), Jeff Fahey (McTeague), Eiza González (Nyssiana), Derek Mears (Romo), Leonard Wu (Kinuba)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2018
Country: U.S.
Alita: Battle Angel
Alita: Battle Angel

In a brief February 2005 interview in Newsweek, James Cameron noted that he was finally working on a new feature film to follow up his multi-Oscar-winning international hit Titanic (1997). While Cameron had made a handful of documentaries in the ensuing years, he had otherwise been largely missing in action following his creative and commercial triumph about the doomed ocean liner. “[I]t’s called ‘Battle Angel,’” Cameron said, “and it’s a futuristic action movie adapted from a series of nine Japanese manga graphic novels. It’ll be in 3-D, and the main character will be all computer-generated, like Gollum, but we want it to play like you’re in a real environment watching real things happen.” In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter later that fall, Cameron asserted that they were going to begin principal photography early the following year and the film would be out in 2007.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, as Cameron didn’t get his Titanic follow-up into theaters until 2009, and that film was Avatar, which also became a critical and commercial smash. Battle Angel receded to the background, but Cameron never fully abandoned the project, instead turning it over to director Robert Rodriguez, who worked with Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys) on a screenplay derived from several volumes in Yukito Kishiro’s graphic novel series Gunnm. And, 14 years after it was initially announced, the film, since rechristened Alita: Battle Angel, has finally arrived in theaters. Had it come out in 2007, it might have had the visceral, game-changing impact that Avatar had two years later; instead, it feels like a particularly amped-up iteration of the current norm in digital blockbuster filmmaking. This is not to say that it is not a highly entertaining and a times emotionally gripping excursion into dystopic science fiction (Cameron’s favorite variety), but it is definitely not the revolutionary game changer that Cameron intended it to be a decade and a half ago, which is perhaps why he turned the director’s reigns over to Rodriguez so he could focus on all those forthcoming Avatar sequels instead.

The story unfolds in the 26th century after Earth has been largely decimated by a worldwide war that has left only a few intact cities, including one called Zalem that floats in the air above the appropriately named Iron City below. Zalem is an unseen utopia for the wealthy elite, and virtually no one from below is allowed to ascend to it. In this future world, the difference between human and machine has been largely erased, as huge numbers of characters are cyborgs whose bodies are primarily mechanical even though their brains are distinctly human. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a surgeon-to-the-cyborgs with a particularly tragic history, happens upon the remains of a 300-year-old cyborg teenage girl named Alita (Rosa Salazar), who he reconstructs and essentially adopts as a daughter. Alita has no memory of her past, but soon learns that she is a special cyborg with particularly powerful abilities. Much of the film’s plot drives along Alita’s quest to discover her true identity, an endeavor in which she is aided by Hugo (Keean Johnson), a hunky junk dealer who looks not unlike a young Robert Rodriguez, and potentially thwarted by Vector (Mahershala Ali), a snakish businessman, who is working with Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Dyson’s embittered ex-wife.

Alita: Battle Angel offers more than its share of impressive visuals, from the expansive cityscapes, to the motley assortment of cyborg characters that range from the amusing to the horrifying, to Iron City’s popular sport of Motorball, which is more than a bit reminiscent of the titular sport in Rollerball (1977). It is literally bursting at the seams with visual ingenuity. You can sense the film’s origins in manga, and not just because Alita has enlarged manga eyes that make her look and feel like a Japanese comic book character come to life. It offers a heady mixture of action and pathos, and Rodriguez, who has tended to work more in the former than the latter, proves to be quite adept in stepping into Cameron’s shoes, as he guides the narrative with a sure hand and manages the balance between physical violence and interpersonal drama. With his groundbreaking Sin City (2004), Rodriguez proved his willingness and skill in pushing the envelope when it comes to the divide between the comic book page and the big screen; Alita is a much more conventional film in both tone and image, but it is still a frequently astounding one. Its emotions are big and Rodriguez allows the film to wear them unabashedly on its sleeve. There is some clunky dialogue here and there and moments that are far too predictable, but as a whole the film stands as a generally impressive merging of state-of-the-art technology with old-fashioned dystopian storytelling.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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