Alita: Battle Angel is on the verge of being an action masterpiece, overcoming a horrendous performance in its male romantic lead and surface storytelling, with some stunning effects work, excellent choreography/cinematography and a compelling lead performance from Rosa Salazar.
Produced & written by James Cameron, this was to be his follow up to Avatar for a number of years, but when Pandora swallowed him up to make four(?) more films, he handed this manga adaptation over to Robert Rodriguez and the results are Cameronesque. All that was missing was an extended runtime to give these characters some more depth and connections. The script is meant to please everyone, like all of Cameron’s work, the man is a populist and he relies on the audiences familiarity with tropes and genre to just go along for the ride. And, after a bit belabored opening act that is way to rushed and overstuffed, the movie jumps from set piece to set piece; but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is Alita: Battle Angel? Alita is the name given to a cyborg, who is salvaged from the garbage of the last utopian sky city Zalem, by doctor Dr. Dyson Ido, who gives her core the body he made for his paralyzed daughter before she was murdered. Alita’s memory isn’t quite sure where she came from, but she quickly falls for a human named Hugo (Ugghhhhhhh!), has a knack for the local sports ball game Motorball, discovers her surrogate father is moonlighting as a cyborg bounty Hunter-Warrior, meets Ido’s ex-wife who might not be above board in the cyborg development game, and might be a super weapon from the past in the film’s first thirty to forty minutes or so.
I know that sounds like a lot, and it is, and we barely dig into the many interesting relationships that pop up in the film. I didn’t even mention the overlord Nova who is overseeing everything in the world of Iron CIty from Zalem above, partially through a cool as hell Mahershala Ali. The movie doesn’t stop to hold your hand, it just rolls, and while that sacrifices digging into Ido and his Ex’s past, the world of Hunter-Warriors or the socio-economics of Iron City and Zalem, it doesn’t need it? It’s so easy to get behind Alita’s journey, Salazar is impossible to look away from, and she kicks so much damn ass I was just having a blast watching her story; though I’d gladly watch the three-hour version of this! Show me a director’s cut!
That brings us to the film’s only flaw, and that is the casting of Hugo with Keean Johnson. I don’t want to pick on the guy too much, but man, he lacks any of the charisma or charm that is needed for us to be compelled by this street thug (I’m pretty sure he modeled his performance after Aladdin), who we are supposed to be rooting for to be able to make a turn around and be the man Alita needs, but, woof! I could see the writing of Hugo work with a better actor in the role, but what we have here is a performance that signals nothing to the viewer the way it does to Alita. She literally falls in love with him at first sight and while we might roll our eyes at that in the moment, a good performance could have won us over. Instead, I was actively rooting for his death, restraining myself from yelling at the screen on a couple of occasions in the third act where his life is in the balance. Man, and the fact that I still really like this movie besides this horrendous element being near its center should tell you how impressive this movie is when it is.
And yes, I would have loved more with Christoph Waltz and Jennifer Connelly hashing out their past and future, but both are good enough to get across what’s needed. More Mahershala would also have been great, but Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley more than fill up the bad guy void it felt like we were going to get with him. Slazar is the star though, and I really can’t sing her praises enough. She popped up here and there over the last few years, and I liked her a lot in Parenthood, but she really knocked this role out of the park. WETA perfectly compliments all of the subtleties in her performance and I lover her wide-eyed (no pun) innocence and optimism that runs throughout the whole movie. I want more of her in this role, and whether it is the set-up part 2 or a prequel film set around The Fall (Moon battles!).
Alita: Battle Angel has a lot going for it and I loved that Rodriguez was able to carry the Cameron torch and give us another film in his vein. Rosa Salazar is a star and I could watch her Alita for a series of films that we hopefully get in the years to come. Yes it’s a bit slight, yes Hugo SUCKS!!!!!, but the action, visuals and world building is all spectacular around Salazar and some great actors having fun. Bring on more Battle Angel!