Alita: Battle Angel is a property you are probably familiar with even if you don’t realize it. It’s based on a Japanese manga, and much like Ghost in the Shell, lots of Hollywood movies (think The Matrix) took cues from it, and the proper Hollywood adaptation didn’t catch up to those movies until now. Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron has apparently been trying to adapt Alita for 25+ years, but strangely enough, decided not to direct it. After lots of reshoots, poorly received test screenings, CGI tune-ups and release date delays, Alita: Battle Angel is coincidentally the last film to be released independently by 20th Century Fox before its merger with Disney. It was also made for a budget of about $200 million, before marketing. It’s clear a lot is riding on this film but is it worth all the effort put into it?
Teenage Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens in a cyborg shell created by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz,) a doctor who has seemingly taken her in and has a strong attachment to her that she can’t quite understand the reasoning for. With no memory of who she is or what her life was like before, Alita also finds herself in an unfamiliar dystopian city where the rich have escaped the apocalypse, and live in floating cities in the sky, while the rest of humanity must live in the slums. She finds a friend in the streetwise and charming Hugo (Keean Johnson), who promises to help her piece the story of her life back together, while also helping her train for an extreme rollerball contest that could earn them a home in the city in the sky.
Lots of plot beats in Alita seem generic, half-baked and generally predictable, and they are. The cookie-cutter characters don’t really have a lot to them, and despite there being something of an emotional core to this story, there isn’t a lot that rings emotionally true. The same could be said for any James Cameron production, honestly. You aren’t there for the storytelling. You’re there for the visual spectacle of the whole thing, and you really have to leave it at that. This is very much a check-your-brain-at-the-door action extravaganza. The CGI is flawless throughout, the fight scenes are well choreographed and engaging, and in the end, you do sort of care what happens to the characters, but in large part, they’re all forgettable because the script was never first priority here.
Rosa Salazar is motion-capture acting this within an inch of its life. Despite her character’s distractingly large anime eyes that I never quite got used to, there is something awkward about how every bit of her performance seems to be digitally altered somehow. This leaves very little room for her character to emote or experience what’s going on around her in a meaningful way. However, she’s a teenage girl who is also an alien hero killing machine, so I suppose there isn’t much nuance in that, to begin with. She’s intended to be some sort of symbol for female empowerment, which also rings a bit false. She’s doing her best to combat the obstacles in her way, and it sort of works. You do leave the theater with a vague interest in seeing what this character does next.
Christoph Waltz is not playing the bad guy, and despite his excellent way with villain characters, I promise there is nothing menacing up his sleeve. And honestly, it’s a nice change of pace for him. Jennifer Connelly, who in my opinion audiences do not see enough, and Mahershala Ali play looming villain types, and neither role is particularly well-written. The movie doesn’t reveal its true villain until the last ten minutes, and that’s one of the problems facing this movie. Keean Johnson is good as Alita’s plucky sidekick/romantic interest, but like everyone else, he’s playing from a script that’s just okay.
Robert Rodriguez, who has a history of directing these really visually thrilling movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City and Planet Terror, can do this kind of thing in his sleep, and this is a larger budget than anything he’s touched in his entire career. He directs it well enough, even though you feel Cameron’s hands all over it. However, the fact that Robert Rodriguez has made an action film with a cyborg female protagonist, where at no point does she acquire a machine gun leg, feels like a truly missed opportunity.
Overall, Alita: Battle Angel is dumb fun, and there are worse ways to spend a night at the movies. It’s a big-budget action movie with a ton of exposition, clearly wanting to set up a franchise, that unfortunately will probably never happen. It’s brainless, but it’s got a lot of heart and, at certain points, it’s quite joyous. It’s also a thrill to watch these visual effects unfold in IMAX 3D. Having said that, it will probably lose a lot of the spectacle once it arrives in the ancillary market. So, perhaps catch Alita: Battle Angel on the big screen, for a matinee price or a discount night.