Review: ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL Soars Amid Forgivable Derivations

James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez team up for manga sci-fi actioner, starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Review: ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL Soars Amid Forgivable Derivations

In the beginning, this is what we know about Alita:  Though initially a recovered discarded husk of mechanized shoulders and head, she’s just a confused and self-conscious teenage girl. 

There’s a lot she doesn’t know about herself nor the world she’s found herself in.  Should she distrust her father figure?  Does her past matter?  Should she heed the call to be more than her loved ones would have her be?  At what cost self-actualization?  All valid, all universally relatable, yet appropriately specific within the material.

Adapted from Yukito Kishiro's manga series Gunnm, perhaps better known in the West as Battle Angel Alita, the film manages to spin some appeal and freshness amid its well-worn cyberpunk derivations.  Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner: Scorch Trials) has the title role as the awakened onetime cybernetic warrior long shutdown and abandoned to the vast scrapyards of Earth. 

Though the promise of a live-action lead character sporting unnaturally large manga-style eyes sounded off-putting to many (myself included), it turns out that Salazar’s Alita is one of the finest motion capture performances to date, its underlying and complete artifice virtually undetectable.  (Only via a post-screening special presentation video did the full extent of Alita-as-visual-effect become apparent).  

Alita, awakened to a fallen world in which the seismic wars of centuries earlier have yet to be recovered from, begins to slowly awaken to herself.  Sure enough, she’s a finely tuned lethal warrior, as quick as she is instinctively fierce.  (The title pretty gives this away).  The brilliant doctor/tinkerer who found and revived her, Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) seems to know more of her origins than he lets on, seemingly in hopes of protecting her - something he could not do for his own deceased daughter. 

Messing around with robotics, though, isn’t his only occupation.  An entire bounty hunting superstructure exists in an effort to maintain order.  But is such a system truly just...?  Meanwhile, his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) has fallen into a position of social power  under the thumb of the despotic Vector (Mahershala Ali).

Though the premise is rife with overly familiar robo-future “more human than human” techno-tropes (all alluded to in the above long list of film citations) Alita is, in the end, the refreshing rarity that leaves us wanting more.  Or at least, unopposed to the inevitability of more.  

That said, the many, many derivations (or apparent derivations, considering the age of its source material) are impossible to sidestep.  Jason Bourne... RoboCop... Elysium... Ghost in the Shell, as well as much of James Cameron’s filmography, including but not limited to The Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens, Avatar, The Abyss, and even Titanic. This list is incomplete, but enough for the purposes of this review.  And to be fair, it can be pointed out that although co-star Christoph Waltz was once in a movie called Big Eyes, it was nothing like this.

alita-battle-angel-trailer.jpg

By the end, this is what we still don’t know:  Who’s movie is this, really??

There are two big names behind the camera on this one, inviting a curious cross section of expectations and questions.  Twenty years ago, the ballyhooed collaboration of James Cameron as producer and Robert Rodriguez as director would’ve laid utter waste to geekdom, and lit up the box office like little else.  Fans may know that Cameron has had this property in development at least that long, eventually handing directorial chores over to his friend Rodriguez. 

While Cameron’s track record remains impressive if selective, Rodriguez is a different matter.  After years and years of building his brand and doing his own thing, his contribution has been a string of forgettable digitally propped-up eyesores.  When your best film is Sin City, maybe it’s time to radically change gears.  Which, by throwing in as Cameron’s gun for hire, he’s exactly done.  The pairing isn’t exactly intuitive, as Cameron’s sensibility utterly devours any trace of Rodriguez the auteur.  But, maybe this is for the best.

As different as Cameron and Rodriguez are, there are a few things that these creators could bond over.  Both of their primary focuses have been not just manufacturing non-realities for mass audiences, but how to go about doing it.  A truly impressive aspect of Alita: Battle Angel is its ambitiously detailed world-building.  And yet, it manages not to be the stuff of continuous expository info-dumps. 

Cameron has an inexplicable way with this sort of thing, having provided hundreds of pages of his own creative back-matter to Rodriguez.  As Rodriguez has pointed out in an interview, while both filmmakers draw, he’s a cartoonist while Cameron is an illustrator.  Viability and plausibility are, for the first time, fore-fronted in a Robert Rodriguez film.

Though when described, the ending of Alita: Battle Angel may sound like yet another action film cliffhanger that’s all about franchise-furthering, that’s not it.  Though not every aspect of the story is resolved, somehow, it feels right. 

Rather than digging into the meticulous and considerable plot and situation of this impressively rendered world (courtesy of the wizards at WETA), Cameron and company take a dignified risk, ending the film precisely when this phase of Alita’s character journey is fulfilled.  Boom, done.  For once, we’re left wanting more.  A most pleasant surprise in a movie that can be reduced to its derivations, and genre givens. 

Of course Alita herself is empowered into her realized past as a path to her own difficult future.  But more than that, Alita: Battle Angel itself is empowered as a blockbuster.  In true James Cameron fashion, the cookie-cutter is unceremoniously rolled flat, even in the film’s obvious imperfections.

In that regard, one is flabbergasted that after pouring so much energy, creativity and innovation into Alita, that it, not at all unlike Avatar and Titanic, is full of lousy dialogue.  It’s a testament to the brilliance of actors Waltz and Ali that they, in particular, are able to smooth right over the words assigned to them, rendering them as natural and non-glaring. 

But all in all, Alita proves stronger than the sum of its weaknesses, a James Cameron bottom line if ever there was one.  In our own future, when the definitive books are written on the careers of both Cameron and Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel cannot be ignored in the former, but will stand as an anomalous footnote in the latter.  It’s a film of familiar yet reliable mechanics, by an unlikely duo that at best warrant that same describer: reliable mechanics.

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Alita: Battle AngelChristoph WaltzJames CameronJennifer Connellymanga adaptationRobert Rodriguez

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