Alita: Battle Angel is a mesmerizing feat of filmmaking – and stunning in 3D – that struggles under the weight of adapting such rich source material.
A film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga, Battle Angel Alita, has been in development for quite some time. The cyberpunk manga was published between 1990-1995 and earned a number of devoted fans – including James Cameron, a director who found great success in the 80s and 90s bringing sci-fi and tentpole projects to life on the big screen. Cameron spent more than a decade attempting to crack the potential big screen iteration of Battle Angel Alita. However, the visionary filmmaker eventually moved on to his groundbreaking film franchise, Avatar, and director Robert Rodriguez took over the task of trying to bring Battle Angel Alita to life. Now, the film adaptation of Kishiro’s manga finally comes to life with Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, which uses much of the script Cameron wrote. Alita: Battle Angel is a mesmerizing feat of filmmaking – and stunning in 3D – that struggles under the weight of adapting such rich source material.
Alita: Battle Angel follows the titular cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who’s found mostly disassembled in the scrapyard of Iron City by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Ido takes her still living core and attaches it to the cyborg body he had created for his daughter before her death. When the cyborg awakens in Ido’s care, he names her Alita after his daughter. But, of course, Alita isn’t his daughter and yearns to learn who she really is. Discovering the world around her, Alita is fascinated by Iron City, the remnants of society living beneath the last floating city of Zalem, and its inhabitants – particularly Hugo (Keean Johnson). And Alita is especially enthralled by the sport of Motorball, which Hugo teachers her how to play with some local teenagers.
However, there is a danger lurking just beneath the surface of Iron City – both literally and figuratively. Vector (Mahershala Ali) and Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) sponsor some of the most successful Motorball players, but they have a side operation that gives them connections to incredibly powerful people in Zalem. As Alita discovers the darkness in Iron City and begins to learn about her history as a warrior, she resolves to become a hunter-warrior (a bounty hunter) and fight against evil, especially the villainous cyborg Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). As Alita gets closer to discovering who she truly is and her purpose, there are those in both Iron City and Zalem who conspire to take the cyborg down and Alita finds herself in a battle not only for her life, but for the lives of those she loves.
Directed by Rodriguez from a script by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, it quickly becomes clear that Alita: Battle Angel benefits from the same technical advancements that made Cameron’s Avatar such a innovation in terms of 3D filmmaking. Alita: Battle Angel is nothing short of a mesmerizing spectacle and is no doubt best experienced in the highest quality format possible. The world of Iron City, the Badlands and Zalem is full of depth and texture, highlighting each piece of the setting – down to the dust motes floating in the light – in beautifully rendered 3D. The Motorball scenes especially must be highlighted as full of adrenaline-pumping action sequences. Although the Motorball scenes must have been brought to life almost entirely with CGI, the 3D experience helps them to feel more visceral and real. Each aspect of this dystopian world is thought through, and it shows in the carefully wrought filmmaking.
Where Alita: Battle Angel struggles is the story, which was worked on by Cameron, Kalogridis and Rodriguez in an attempt to bring Kishiro’s manga to live-action. However, it becomes clear from the inconsistent pacing – at times moving too quickly through events, and other times languishing too long on certain story beats – that this is a much longer story cut down to its barest bones. The result is a two-hour movie that somehow feels three hours long because so much is jam-packed into it, but Alita: Battle Angel still leaves major gaps in the story and world-building. What is included in Alita: Battle Angel is fascinating and the movie does manage to flesh out Iron City and Zalem as much as it can, but it’s almost as if the most interesting aspects were saved for a sequel. Alita: Battle Angel is very much an origin story for the titular hero, and it’s a solid origin story at that, but it’s also one that paves the way for potentially more compelling tales to come.
Since Battle Angel is Alita’s origin story, Salazar is tasked with carrying much of the film on her own, and she’s further burdened by the task of portraying this character who is digitally altered to have bigger, manga-style eyes. The melding of Salazar’s performance and the digital work done to alter the actress in order to bring Alita to life is nothing short of astonishing. There are moments of surreality, but the film surprisingly manages to mostly stay away from any kind of uncanny valley effect, which would have taken viewers right out of this fictional world. No doubt, the heart of Alita’s character stems from Salazar, and she embodies the character well. Waltz gets the next most meaty role in Battle Angel, and he does what he can with the character of Ido, just as Johnson does with Hugo. However, with so much focus placed on Alita and moving her story forward, the movie doesn’t spend too much time with anyone else.
Ultimately, Alita: Battle Angel does have a decent enough story and script – though there are moments of almost unbearably clunky dialogue that even this all-star cast can’t make work. However, the true star of the movie isn’t the writing or any of the performances, it’s the visuals. To the filmmakers’ credit, the visuals are absolutely stunning and if moviegoers have to choose only one 2019 release to see in IMAX 3D, Alita: Battle Angel is it. Further, though the world and story of Battle Angel are a little lackling, they aren’t entirely bereft. It’s clear that first Cameron, then Rodriguez and Kalogridis crafted this movie with a great deal of love for the property and they wanted to do it justice. However, fans of Battle Angel Alita will have to decide for themselves if it truly honors Kishiro’s work.
All in all, Alita: Battle Angel is a must-see for anyone wanting to check out stunning filmmaking in theaters before they run the risk of missing out on the next Avatar-style spectacle. It remains to be seen whether Alita: Battle Angel has even a chance of reaching the heights of success as Avatar, but given the wide world introduced in Rodriguez’s movie, hopefully it’s successful enough to warrant a sequel. As we’ve seen from other franchises that have introduced heroes with an origin story film then found greater success once the heroes’ stories are truly allowed to flourish, Alita: Battle Angel sets the stage for even more compelling and visually beautiful filmmaking to come.
Alita: Battle Angel starts playing in U.S. theaters Wednesday evening February 13th. It is 122 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.
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