Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

“A warrior’s spirit needs a warrior’s body.”

By alloying together the futuristic dystopia of Blade Runner with the flimsy romance elements of The Hunger Games, all while styling them both through its source material’s Manga mood, Alita: Battle Angel is both new and old, sharp and obtuse. The film’s a remarkable step forward in visual effects, just dopey enough in its minor plots, and thankfully ambitious enough to put a unique spin on a tale we’ve already seen many times over. Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t deserve to be lopped along the frequent flops which have preceded it (I’m talking box-office bombs like Mortal Engines, Seventh Son and Ender’s Game). Few felt this rich, and surprisingly, quite so human.

It’s 2563, some 300 years after what’s referred to as “The Fall.” With society segregated by the wealthy floating above in Zalem and the lesser, often hybrid humans rummaging around in Iron City below, Alita: Battle Angel paints its class system through a visual dichotomy. This is only made clearer by the excellent opening sequences, taking their time by doing less telling and more showing. It’s a proper introduction to this world, one which we come to see and to learn alongside the titular character. Found by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) in a heap of trash, Alita’s (Rosa Salazar) head is miraculously still alive and Ido gives her a body that he previously built for someone else, sealing their makeshift bond with surgical precision. Alita has no memory, so she trusts the man who gave her new life. Ido knows her past, so he protects her from the dangerous truth.

There are a few aspects where the film falls pretty short, but its exceptional world-building is far from being one of them. I believed the buildings, the cyborgs, the fumes and the smoke. And it’s easy to believe because the CGI seamlessly blends Alita (as well as the rest of the visually rendered characters) into the tangible production design. Even the augmented landscapes are convincing. What’s most important is that Alita’s eyes and emotions can sell a close-up shot; if those work, the rest of the movie will undoubtedly follow suit. Needless to say, Rosa Salazar delivers a knockout motion capture performance, infusing honesty through her expressions and movements and speaking patterns. Alita doesn’t look human, but because of Salazar, she certainly acts the part.

As for the plot of the movie, well, let’s just say it’s shuffled by the 52 pickup method; no precise overhand shuffle here. Based on the Manga by Yukito Kishiro, Alita: Battle Angel stuffs itself to the gills, so much so that the subplots rarely get a chance to breathe. Alita has a forced romance with Hugo (Keean Johnson), a street smart young guy. Hugo’s kind and compassionate, at least when he’s not doing the bidding of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a man chosen to speak on behalf Zalem’s faceless leader Nova. Vector, with the help of Ido’s ex-wife Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), rigs Motor Ball matches (think the 1975 version of Rollerball with a bloodier, Battle Royale vibe) so that no victor from Iron City will ever win their promised entry into Zalem should they become champion. Believe it or not, there’s still more where that came from.

As a story, Alita: Battle Angel spreads its reach outside its grasp, offering enough material to have justified either an additional 30 minutes or an earlier ending where plot points were hit in a potential sequel. And I actually hope this movie gets another whack at it. With themes of female empowerment, forged identity, the capability of amputees, and the novel idea that carefully crafted pieces of bygone technology can outlast the plasticine nature of so-called modern advancements, Robert Rodriguez’s movie is one of the few sci-fi epics built for that masses that actually understands the purpose of the genre. Good sci-fi is meant to be a commentary of the present, bad sci-fi relies solely on predicting the future, and great science fiction somehow achieves both. Which is why it’s too bad that so much of the smothered plot is stacked on top of itself, because there are plenty of virtues in Alita: Battle Angel to match the brilliance of its visual grandeur.

“You surprised me.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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