Director: Robert Rodriguez
Release Date: February 14, 2019
Based on Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm manga series, Alita: Battle Angel takes place in 2563 or 300 years after “The Fall”, referring to the destruction of Earth’s space stations at the hands of a Mars attack. The attack sent all but one station crashing to the surface. Zalem is the only station that remains afloat and serves as an outpost for the rich, ruling class. The rest of civilization lives on the surface in a lawless wasteland called “Iron City”. Its inhabitants, equipped with an every-man-for-themselves mentality, strive to build enough money to become the champion of a violent sport called Motor Ball, an achievement that would ascend them to the ruling class. Anyone who’s seen the Matt Damon sci-fi hit Elysium, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, or participated in our capitalist economy should be familiar with this narrative.
Our story opens with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) digging through the trash that Zalem dumps onto the surface of the Earth, because why not? They can do whatever they want. He stumbles upon a cyborg who only has her head and heart remaining. Dr. Dyson brings her back to his lab and creates a fully functioning body for her, bringing her back to life. The cyborg has no memory of her past life, so Dr. Ido names her Alita (Rosa Salazar).
The world-building and set up of this movie is a huge task. Director Robert Rodriguez does a very good job of putting us in the Iron City but the task comes at the expense of other important story-telling aspects. The development of the movie’s characters and their relationships is almost nonexistent. Within Alita’s first day or two of being alive, the father-daughter relationship is forced onto her and Dr. Ido. She, of course, meets a cute Disney channel star looking boy almost immediately after she leaves the house for the first time, setting up the cliché love side of the story. The pacing of the first hour hinders the perceived bond of our characters, as the director is in a hurry to build this world and get us into CGI cyborg-smashing as soon as possible.
The script is pretty awful, which is to be expected of a 90’s anime adaptation. From corny monologues of rising up against immense adversity, to father-daughter arguments between Alita and Dr. Ido about destiny and discovering her past, the themes come off as cliché. Writer/producer James Cameron could have attempted to be more original.
The performances in this film….. Aren’t good. Normally in a CGI action film, I wouldn’t even comment on something like this but in Alita: Battle Angel, they are noticeably awful. There’s a few scenes where Alita “explodes” with frustration and will break a wall or punch a shelf. These occurrences are unconvincing and unintentionally comical. Keean Johnson, who plays the aforementioned pretty boy who could star in a Disney channel show, is also difficult to watch. His character had the potential to be likable but was just straight-up bad.
If you can get past the corny dialogue and ignore the nonexistent character development Alita: Battle Angel is still wildly entertaining. The Rollerball knock off sport Motorball scenes are off the rails, as Alita dodges death while destroying giant bounty hunting cyborgs, while going 90mph on rollerblades. We’re never lost in the chaos and the action finds new ways to lay waste to the Frankenstein-modified cyborg killers, keeping the movie fresh through a lengthy 2 hour run-time.
The CGI battle scenes and creative robot killers are badass but Rodriguez misses on the human element of this cyborg story. Personally I need to be emotionally invested in the characters to be all in on a film. Robert Rodriguez/James Cameron collaboration Alita: Battle Angel trades character development and quality storytelling for explosions and corny dialogue.