Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is a surprisingly fun mix of B-movie sci-fi and earnest romance
“Alita: Battle Angel” is a motion-capture manga adaptation long in the works by producers James Cameron and Jon Landau that stars Rosa Salazar and is directed by Robert Rodriguez.
If you’re in the mood for a movie like “Alita,” “Alita” is the movie you’re in the mood for.
Brought to the screen by close friends and popular filmmaking success stories Robert Rodriguez (who directed) and James Cameron (who co-wrote and produced), “Alita: Battle Angel” (to give it its full title) inevitably goes where other big-budget tales of science-fiction adventure and derring-do have gone before.
But it does so with enough energy, verve and belief in itself — not to mention generous dollops of sentiment and technical innovation — that we’re happy to retrace familiar steps.
Based on Yukito Kishiro’s popular multi-volume Japanese manga about a waif named Alita, whose amnesia just might hide the most advanced weapon system ever known, this big-budget B picture with dystopia on its mind has been in Cameron’s sights for close to 20 years.
But at a certain point, after writing the script with Laeta Kalogridis, Cameron decided that the multiple “Avatar” sequels he was consumed with left no time for this project, and Rodriguez, whose own credits range from “Sin City” to the family-friendly “Spy Kids” films, agreed to take it on.
What results is an action-heavy saga of self-discovery, filled with numerous violent tussles between Alita and all manner of evildoers, that shares screen time with a sweet, sentimental love story that could have leapt from the pages of “All True Romance” comics.
In fact, it can’t be an accident that “Alita,” which foregrounds an intrepid and fearless heroine of the type Cameron is partial to, will land in U.S. theaters on Valentine’s Day. Women and men alike are equal targets to play their part in the box-office gross.
Key to this hoped for success is both the performance of Rosa Salazar, the actress chosen to play Alita, and the remarkable work done by Weta Digital in using performance-capture technology to make her character look convincing as a cyborg, which the press notes conveniently explains are “not robots. They’re humans enhanced by biotechnological components.”
Salazar, last seen in Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box,” brings a keenly expressive face and a gift for both wonder and ferocity to her performance, and the folks at Weta, including effects veterans Joe Letteri and Eric Saindon, have impressively made the most of her ability.
“Alita: Battle Angel,” directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Rosa Salazar, Eiza González, Christophe Waltz, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly.
The Weta team has not only amplified Alita’s enormous saucer eyes, they’ve done wonders with her cyborg face and skin, making her look closer to real but still not quite 100% human. In doing so “Alita” neatly sidesteps the uncanny valley feelings that doomed so many previous sci-fi efforts and ensures this creation fits convincingly in a live-action film.
Amusingly opening with a 26th Century Fox logo, “Alita” takes place in the year 2563, some 300 years after The Fall. That was when the civilized world fell to pieces, leaving humanity split between the earthbound proletarian Iron City and the more upscale, aspirational Zalem, “the last of the great Sky cities,” where everyone who is anyone lives large.
Almost all of the action in “Alita” takes place in Iron City, a magnificent ruin filled with vast junkyards and crumbling buildings, a setting so immense and involving it took four folks to imagine it: concept design supervisors Ben Procter and Dylan Cole and production designers Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute.
Though supersized robotic Centurions patrol its streets, Iron City is, dare we say it, a dark and dangerous place where the strong prey on the weak and cyborgs are killed and dismantled so their body parts can be sold and reused. Really.
One of this metropolis’ few good guys is Doc Ido, a kindly cyberphysician played with unexpected compassion by Christoph Waltz, who did not win his two Oscars by being warm and cuddly. It is the good doctor who discovers a young woman’s still breathing head and torso in one of Iron City’s larger junk heaps. He surgically inserts her into a cyberbody he happens to have handy (don’t ask) and calls her Alita.
Alita is in need of a name because she can remember nothing of her pre-junk heap life, not even what anyone called her. “Who am I? Why am I here?” she not surprisingly wonders. The questions will be answered in time.
Meanwhile, blessed with a genial personality, Alita makes friends quickly, especially with a handsome young street ruffian named Hugo (newcomer Keean Johnson), who swears by earnest bromides of the “you have to stay focused on your dream” variety.
Alita is also inexplicably drawn to Iron City’s sport of the moment, the gladiatorial Motorball, a strain of ultra-violent roller derby that enables her to show flashes of her unexpected killer combat skills.
For though she is so Audrey Hepburn slight that bad guys inevitably underestimate her as “an insignificant girl,” Alita knows things about combat larger men have forgotten. That includes an intimate knowledge of the wonderfully named Panzer Kunst fighting technique, of which the least said the better.
As Alita makes her way through Iron City and learns who she is, she has to confront quite the collection of venal individuals who do not necessarily have her best interests in mind. These include the sinister Vector (Mahershala Ali), the mysterious Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), the bigger than a breadbox Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and the self-involved Zapan (Ed Skrein), who calls Alita “cupcake” and comes to wish he hadn’t.
Though the action involved is pretty much nonstop, it is more acrobatic than bloody (Salazar was assisted by a whopping nine stunt doubles). Rodriguez keeps everything moving at an involving clip.
While nothing here is unexpected, including a climax that clearly points to a sequel, that is not necessarily a bad thing. “Alita” does not break the mold, but it does burnish it nicely and that can have pleasures of its own. If that sequel ever does get made, I will be waiting.
‘Alita: Battle Angel’
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence, and for some language
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Playing: In general release
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