Alita: Battle Angel
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis
Based on “Gunnm” by Yukito Kishiro
Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrien, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson
In this world of CGI dinosaurs, spectacular sequences filled with well-endowed, form-fitting spandex heroes leaping from rooftop to rooftop, it is easy to lose sight of when a truly special film comes before your eyes.
Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel” is a spectacle from its dreary beginnings to its spectacular form-fit heroine leaping from rooftop to rooftop. The story, based on the Japanese manga series, “Gunnm” is yet another dystopic story in a future where Earth is devastated, the well-to-do people live in a great city in the sky, Zalem and the everyday denizens live on what’s left of our history.
What’s curious about this particular story, written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (“Alexander,” “Pathfinder,” “Shutter Island,” “Terminator Genisys”), is just how Alita (Rosa Salazar in her debut performance) comes across the screen. I’m not referring to the revolutionary motion capture systems used to create the character, though that is just as amazing. No, we actually get to see Ms. Salazar’s naiveté, her sense of wonder.
Found in a heap of junk by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a wunderkind himself, Alita is brought to life. We learn very quickly of the haves and have-nots in this society. We learn of Ido’s life, leading him to this moment and of his ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly).
Peripherally, we learn of Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his power over the have-nots. Ed Skrien plays Zapan, probably the one character in the film that actually freaked me out while Jackie Earle Haley plays a thuggish cyborg named Grewishka. I came to liken Grewishka as the Energizer Bunny: he just kept coming and coming and coming.
But that’s the part of “Alita: Battle Angel” that I really admired. As thin as the story is, against the special effects and the effectiveness of the Dolby Cinema 3D presentation, the characters really stood out against their environment.
Don’t mistake me. There were elements that seemed hopelessly cheesy; namely the relationship between Alita and Hugo (Keean Johnson), the dashing John Travolta-type bad boy: we know he’s trouble. Yet, we don’t really care because we know of the inevitability of this type of character: as far in love as they get, we know it can’t work, but we care because Hugo is genuinely someone who is full of ideals and integrity, something the “bad boy” type isn’t usually imbued with. It was interesting to see Hugo interact with his own clique, especially Jorge Lendeborg, Jr, who has sprung up out of practically nowhere over the last year, first in “Love, Simon” and then the recent and popular “BumbleBee.”
The centerpiece of this whole affair is the “motorball” game, a la Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball”. The idea for this part of “Alita” is as much an homage as it is an inventive story device: it gives Alita her ‘character.’ Without the aggressiveness, Alita would be a passive individual. It strengthens her motives and her resolve.
The sideshow with Hugo and the ongoing, relentless bounty hunter chases really wears one down by the third act. I admit that it was fun to see the dregs of the assassin pool in a Star Wars-cantina style bar, where Jeff Fahey and Rick Yune make appearances.
“Alita: Battle Angel” never relents. And that is part of its challenge. It is a cacophony of sight and sound. It shines a brilliant light on a heroine that people can genuinely cheer for. But, I don’t know if it has the substance that it thinks it does. My biggest disappointment is in Mahershala Ali’s Vector. He has a terrific screen presence, but his character is truly rendered as a puppet. Now that I say that, I could totally see him playing a future version of Mr. Anderson from “The Matrix,” but I digress.
Unlike “Avatar,” James Cameron created something that people can relate to, something of value to latch on. Robert Rodgriguez’s direction is assured through the technology behind the film. Just like a lot of his early films, Cameron is still experimenting. It’s showy and flashy, but it is reality.
Is it good? To an extent. It is overt in its intentions and subversive in its characters. Just like a traditional James Cameron film ought to be. There is feeling, depth and the characters are strong, but the story doesn’t completely hold up next to the amazing spectacle that the movie really is.
3 out of 4 stars