Given that Alita: Battle Angel was originally planned for a July 2018 release before being shifted around to December 2018 and now its set release this week, one would be forgiven for assuming this sci-fi action experiment would amount to little more than an expensive mess. I’ll admit I was skeptical, and the first trailer released unfortunately did little to ease my concerns.
Now that it’s here in all its glory, I can attest that Alita is far stronger as an overall feature. Whilst James Cameron isn’t helming the film – that’s reserved for fellow visionary Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids) – his fingerprints are all over it; if you didn’t know about Rodriguez’s involvement you’d swear this was a Cameron picture.
The James Cameron who brought harder action to the masses with such films as The Terminator, Aliens and True Lies is certainly an identity of the past, with the famed director adopting the more audience-friendly, saccharine mentality that drove Titanic and Avatar to near-unmatched commercial success. That Cameron is very much plastered all throughout Alita, and unfortunately it momentarily stifles the film when it opts to introduce a Twilight-esque romance for its titular creation.
YA “love story” aside, Alita makes the most of its hefty budget in creating an immersive universe set 500 years in the future, where the Earth has been left devastated and those who survived the catastrophic war known as “The Fall” wander the surface metropolis of Iron City; it’s established early on that the more wealthy survivors reside in a floating sky city known as Zalem.
Searching through the junkyard for scraps of metal, scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) uncovers the discarded remains of a female cyborg who happens to possess a human brain. Rebuilding her body and taking her in as a surrogate daughter, he dubs her Alita (Rosa Salazar in a truly captivating motion-capture performance). Unable to remember any of her life as a cyborg prior, Alita learns the ways of her new surroundings, wavering between affection and suspicion for Ido, and gradually falling for young Hugo (Keean Johnson), all the while fighting off a group of sinister forces intent on dissecting her in a bid to unlock the technology stored within her being.
The story doesn’t exactly scream originality, and the Cameron/Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, Shutter Island) penned script leaves much to be desired, but Alita is more about the quality of presentation. And whilst the character of Alita always looks like a CGI-creation, it doesn’t take long to completely forget that fact as the graphic rendering adopted to bring her to life, merged with Salazar’s wholly committed performance, is truly spectacular.
Ironically, Salazar delivers the film’s most human performance, and given that she’s surrounded by such proven talent as Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali (all Oscar winners too, for the record), that’s certainly an accomplishment in itself. Waltz is perfectly serviceable as Alita’s father figure, but he feels out-of-place when injected into the more action-heavy sequences, Connelly swans about (initially) in a near-caricature capacity before her story arc allows her to bring some much-needed warmth to her character, whilst Ali is clearly enjoying himself as the villain of the piece, camping it up when need be without completely overdoing it.
Equally ambitious as it is flawed, Alita: Battle Angel at least can’t be accused of being stale. The film perhaps faults itself by not completely delivering on closure as the final moments allude to a second story – a second story that may not be granted should it not earn the expected coin – but, for the most part, Cameron’s vision is a success. A tightening on dialogue and a romantic exorcism would’ve served this film a world of good, but for something that I suspect many will already be sharpening their claws for, Alita is a winner in the battle against its detractors.
About Alita: Battle Angel
From visionary filmmakers James Cameron (AVATAR) and Robert Rodriguez (SIN CITY), comes ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, an epic adventure of hope and empowerment. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens with no memory of who she is in a future world she does not recognize, she is taken in by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate doctor who realizes that somewhere in this abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of a young woman with an extraordinary past. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious history while her street-smart new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson) offers instead to help trigger her memories. But it is only when the deadly and corrupt forces that run the city come after Alita that she discovers a clue to her past – she has unique fighting abilities that those in power will stop at nothing to control. If she can stay out of their grasp, she could be the key to saving her friends, her family and the world she’s grown to love.
Alita: Battle Angel (M) is screening in Australian theatres from February 14th 2019.