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A Battle Star Is Born

Rosa Salazar
Rosa Salazar
20th Century Fox
 122 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz   
Alita: Battle Angel

If James Cameron were around in 1940, armed with 21st century technology, and Walt Disney asked him to make Pinocchio with a female lead character, then the results would probably have looked something like Alita: Battle Angel, a Mad Max/manga film with plenty of robotic evil whales and foxes and Christoph Waltz as a futuristic Geppetto, but nary a Jiminy Cricket to be found. And like their modern-day counterparts, those 1940 audiences would have been dazzled by the technical wizardry but wondered what happened to the story.


Cameron produced Alita: Battle Angel, co-wrote the script, and was the driving force behind the special effects, so the project has the same technical strengths and storytelling weaknesses of most of his films. The movie takes place in a typical dystopian future version of Earth, where most of the planet is an overcrowded slum. The wealthy people live in the airborne city of Zalem. It’s almost impossible for Earth dwellers to be admitted to Zalem, but the city “rewards” the planet below by dumping its refuse in giant landfills. Robotic technology has advanced tremendously over the last 500 years so that many people are combinations of human, robot, and cyborg parts. One of the leading scientists in this field, Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz), spends his spare time digging through the landfills for usable parts discarded from Zalem. On one of his expeditions, he finds the head of an amazingly advanced cyborg with a human brain, whom he dubs Alita (Rosa Salazar), after his dead daughter.


Back in his laboratory, Ido attaches the head of Alita to a robot body and begins training and educating her. He finds out that she is surprisingly strong and quick, but has the emotions of a typical teenager. Eventually, Ido also discovers that Alita doesn’t actually come from the planet Earth; instead, she arrived during the war between Earth and Mars decades earlier as a Martian warrior. When Alita is eventually reconnected to a Martian battle chassis, she becomes nearly invincible.


While Alita and Ido are bonding, she also comes to the attention of various evildoers, including Vector (Mahershala Ali), who runs the highly profitable sport of Motorball, a combination of motocross and roller derby where players can easily get killed. Vector reports Alita to his boss, the mysterious Nova (an unbilled Edward Norton), a scientist in Zalem. Nova orders Vector to kill Alita and bring her parts to Zalem. To do so, Vector recruits numerous cyborg hunter-warriors, bounty hunters who are essentially the only law and order left on earth. Chief among those hunter-warriors is a giant cyborg named Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) with multiple extendible claws for arms (a sort of cross between Doctor Octopus and ED-209).


Technically, Alita: Battle Angel is based on a Japanese manga series called Gunmm, but, as I noted earlier, its roots harken all the way back to Pinocchio. But the film has lots of other inspirations, including Rollerball (the Norman Jewison/ James Caan version), Robocop, Elysium, and, frankly, almost every superhero movie ever made. James Cameron and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis assembled the screenplay in much the same way that Dyson Ido assembled Alita, cobbling bits and pieces together from various sources. However, the end result isn’t the sleek metallic Alita who bashes the bad guys in the second half of the movie, but, instead, an ungainly, talky mess.


The original Japanese version of Alita: Battle Angel was condensed into nine volumes, roughly the first half of which find their way into the current movie. Actually, the screenwriters do a reasonably good job of explaining things in a way that doesn’t get the film entirely bogged down, but that’s in large part due to director Robert Rodriguez’s tendency to throw in one action scene after another in the hopes viewers will more or less gloss over the shortcomings of the script. The filmmakers’ tactics actually work in this regard. Alita: Battle Angel straddles the line between competent scripting and total silliness, but the film never becomes so talky that it gets totally bogged down in detail. I freely confess that I didn’t understand all the backstory involved in the movie, but I also found out that it didn’t really matter much.


Of course, if you’re going to make a movie with a flimsy script like Alita: Battle Angel, it helps to have a charismatic newcomer like Rosa Salazar as the lead and three Oscar winners in the supporting cast. While Waltz, Ali, and Jennifer Connelly (as Ido’s wife) make their roles far more than the cartoonish stereotypes they otherwise might have been, Salazar actually makes viewers care about the main character. And she acted under some very trying conditions of the sort that have made Andy Serkis a star of sorts.


To create Alita and the other part-cyborg creations in the movie, the filmmakers used a combination of performance capture and CGI technology. The results are astonishing. The combat and action scenes in this movie are quite realistic, with Alita’s movements looking amazingly lifelike. All the CGI characters move quite realistically, and the facial expressions are extremely credible (especially the big eyes effect on Alita). Further, from a technical perspective, Robert Rodriguez has mastered the use of CGI. These battle scenes are spectacular, and, best of all, very easy for viewers to follow. Plus, even though 3D technology has lost much of its luster with audiences in 2019. Alita: Battle Angel is one movie that takes advantage of the technique to the maximum extent possible, turning battle sequences into genuinely immersive experiences.


I’ll be very clear about one thing: Alita: Battle Angel has the best action sequences of any superhero movie I can recall. Future directors will study how Cameron and Rodriguez made their movie and wound up with an end result that is exciting, suspenseful, and, best of all, easy to follow. Ironically, the best of the current superhero movies eschew special effects when it comes down to the major showdowns between heroes and villains. Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t suffer from that same restriction. Alita and her opponents do battle in all their CGI glory, and the movie is actually the better for it.


Viewing Alita: Battle Angel as the sum of its various elements, the movie leaves a lot to be desired. The script can be unwieldy, and there’s a big dose of sentimentality. Worse, the film ends on a note that essentially has a “To Be Continued” title card (although considering the mediocre box office to date, a sequel is unlikely). But my overall opinion of the film isn’t based on an objective rating of the individual elements. To the contrary, this is the proverbial movie that’s better than the sum of its parts. Simply put, it’s a lot of fun to watch in the same way that great popcorn movies over the past few decades have been fun to watch. I never got tired of the combat scenes, and Alita herself grew on me as the film went on. Alita: Battle Angel probably qualifies as a guilty pleasure, but I say find me guilty.

In this clip, Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz do battle with some evil cyborgs.

Read other reviews of Alita: Battle Angel: 

Alita: Battle Angel (2019) on IMDb