Futuristic, epic sci-fi films set in the future are becoming more popular these days. At least that’s what Hollywood believes. Last December we were treated to Mortal Engines, a decent tale of motorized cities barreling through barren landscapes. These stories of grand adventure set in the future have been around for decades. The only thing keeping them from piling up on one another is the amount of time it takes for modern visual effects to be completed. Video games, nowadays, have better graphics and cutscenes than some blockbuster movies. Which is why studios need to put extra time into the computer generated imagery they are trying to produce. We are no longer so easily impressed. Luckily for this manga adaptation, that time and effort was well spent.
In Alita: Battle Angel, directed by Robert Rodriguez, it is several hundred years in the future and in this new world there are two societies. One is called Iron City and consists of underprivileged citizens trying to get by. The other is called Zalem and resides in the sky where only the worthy live. A city that defies gravity, the last reminder of a battle that took out all the rest. The lower society is in service to its heavenly host above, creating a system of disproportionate wealth. Several citizens have bodies made from cyborg parts. It lengthens their life and gives them superhuman abilities.
Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is a cyborg mechanic of sorts who repairs people by searching for scrap parts in a junkyard. When he happens upon a discarded cyborg lying in a heap of garbage, he brings it back and rebuilds it. He names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She is the most advanced cyborg he has ever seen, but she is several centuries old. Technology that was lost to war.
Alita has thoughts and feelings that are comparable to any human, but her memories have been erased. As she explores this world she doesn’t know, her mind begins to repair itself and she begins to learn who she is and what she was meant to be. Although it may not be the answer she is looking for.
Along the way we also meet Hugo (Keean Johnson), a young man in Iron City who befriends Alita and hopes to make it to Zalem one day, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Dyson’s ex-wife, and Vector (Mahershala Ali), a ruthless businessman who operates shady operations and runs motorball. Motorball is the only sport this society enjoys. It’s a version of roller derby that involves dangerous cyborgs competing for the chance to win a trip up to Zalem. Playing in motorball can be fatal, but the rewards are so enticing. Alita enjoys the skill and talent it takes to play this game.
Eventually Alita’s adventure of discovery draws the attention of everyone, including the hunter-warriors and the mysterious ruler of Zalem known as Nova, forcing her to defend herself at all costs. The truth of Alita and the world she left behind is waiting to be uncovered, but her enemies are slowly gathering around her. She has no choice but to fight.
I have no prior knowledge of the manga series that inspired this film, but I found the world it created to be amazing to watch. The scope and scale of the environment is astonishing. The visual effects are brilliantly rendered and leap off the screen with immense color and depth. The scenes themselves are beautiful enough, but the amount of detail given to every cyborg character, especially Alita, is fantastic. Alita’s skin is so realistic, down to the pores and blemishes. For most of the movie, I never doubted she was actually in the scene with the human actors. I was entranced by that element alone.
The action sequences and choreography are exciting and fun. The fight scenes and motorball tournaments, which sometimes reminded me of Speed Racer, are expertly crafted and completely relevant to the story.
There are several dark moments in this film, but the tone is generally even. It repeatedly ventures somewhere between devastating, sci-fi/action epic and strange love story/revenge tale. I wouldn’t say it does either of those exceptionally well, but it keeps you invested all the same.
The story does feel rushed at times and you can tell that a lot of exposition and plot is being truncated to fit the runtime. I don’t know if it’s because they always intended it to be in one movie; or they were worried they wouldn’t get a sequel and tried to shove as much as they thought would work. It unfortunately creates plot holes and pacing issues that you have to overlook.
Alita: Battle Angel is a really good movie that is sometimes poorly edited. Though it lacks in story structure, it makes up for it with Alita’s character development, the composition of the action sequences, the character designs, and the digital handiwork. Rosa Salazar is the standout and that’s fortunate considering she is the star of the movie. Christoph Waltz does a decent job in his role as the father figure. I’m not sure this was the best use of Mahershala Ali, but it was fun watching him all the same. Jennifer Connelly also was ok. The film hints at eventual sequels, but given how much time this one took I can only imagine when the next one will come out. I do know it was the right move to postpone its release until February, if only to escape the glut of blockbusters vying for eyeballs. I recommend seeing this on a big screen with loud speakers.
About Alita: Battle Angel
Synopsis: A deactivated female cyborg is revived, but cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Stars: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Keean Johnson
Runtime: 2 Hour, 2 Minutes