Alita: Battle Angel is filled with spectacle and action. Yet it is generally enjoyable because it takes its time establishing its world, never completely abandoning character in favor of visual effects. It looks good, but it has a little more to offer than that. It really is about its protagonist; she is not just a prop for the fight scenes. I cared about Alita. The story is not always compelling; there is a lot going on and at times it seems the filmmakers are trying so hard to launch a franchise that it takes away from this movie. However, the protagonist pulls it through, along with the visuals.
The title character is a cyborg Dr. Ido finds in a scrapyard. She has no memory of her past and knows nothing of the world they live in. With the help of the doctor and her new friend Hugo, she plunges into the dark, violent, underbelly of Iron City to learn about herself and fight for the future.
Alita: Battle Angel (based on the manga by Yukito Kishiro) has been in development for nearly twenty years. James Cameron was originally going to direct it approximately fifteen years ago before opting to make Avatar instead (he is still credited as a producer and co-screenwriter). It then sat around until Robert Rodriguez signed on to direct in 2016.
After seeing it, I understand why it took so long to get made. This is a massive, ambitious, undertaking. Getting the CGI right could not have been an easy thing. Alita herself is animated, as are several other characters. She is not supposed to look “realistic.” Though she does have to blend convincingly with the human actors as well as the animation. Viewers need to know they are watching a robot, but they should not feel like they are watching a cartoon. I was able to suspend my disbelief even during some of the more incredible moments.
The action fits within the plot and characters. It also matches the overall look. With many of these sci-fi epics, once the action starts, it feels like the movie is on pause while we watch someone play a videogame. That does not happen here (there is one scene, where she competes in a violent sport, which comes close). Rodriguez never allows the personal to get overwhelmed. That adds drama, making the action a piece of the story instead of making the story a clothesline to hang the spectacle from. There is so much going on here in terms of world-building, so it is important the action enhances that as opposed to detracting from it.
The centerpiece is Alita, given body and voice by Rosa Salazar. She is the naïve outsider with a mysterious past, turned into a hero by the love she feels for others. That could have been a dull cliché, but Salazar makes her tremendously likable, as well as relatable. Alita is a worthy hero for a big sci-fi franchise. Rodriguez does a good job of keeping her the focus. The supporting roles are also smartly cast with actors capable of giving their characters a life of their own, even if most of their individual stories are not shown here. That includes Christoph Waltz as the doctor, Keean Johnson as Hugo, Jennifer Connelly as the doctor’s ex-wife, Mahershala Ali as her boss, Jackie Earle Haley as a hulking villain and Ed Skrein as a sadistic bounty hunter.
Although Alita is never pushed to the side, there is so much mythology and backstory it sometimes seemed like I was watching the pilot for a tv show. Alita: Battle Angel (117 minutes, minus the end credits) is clearly intended to be the first entry in a franchise. While that is understandable, it has caused it to be overstuffed. Still, the good definitely outweighed the bad. I enjoyed it enough that I am curious to see what Alita will do next (assuming there is a follow-up). That is the main goal of any series opener, so consider this one a success.
3½ out of 5
Rosa Salazar as Alita
Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido
Keean Johnson as Hugo
Jennifer Connelly as Chiren
Mahershala Ali as Vector
Jackie Earle Haley as Grewishka
Ed Skrein as Zapan
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez