It’s always a struggle to take a property from one format and adapt it to a new one. In this case Yukito Kushiro’s manga series Battle Angel Alita had long been sitting on James Cameron’s “To Do” pile but got sidetracked by his quest to make Avatar. In the end he passed the directing reins over to Robert Rodriguez but retained his producing and writing credits. What results is Alita: Battle Angel an origin story about a cyborg trying to find her place in the world.
We meet Alita (Rosa Salazar, with some digitally enhanced big eyes and robot body), rescued from the junk heap by Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) and brought back to life. Initially unable to remember who or what she is, she begins learning about the world on the ground of Iron City and the mysterious floating utopia Zalem above. She meets teenage mechanic and engineer Hugo (Keean Johnson) who she quickly develops a crush on. But when a chance encounter with some dangerous cyborg criminals helps her to unlock some hidden memories about her past. She will discover that she’s more than just a young girl with a powerful cybernetic heart.
Alita: Battle Angel charges out of the gate and is a captivating wild ride visually. From the world-building for Iron City, to the minutest engraved designs on Alita’s robotic forearms, the tiniest of details are rendered beautifully and give this place a sense of reality and tangibility. Much of this can be credited to the team at WETA Digital handling all the animation and visual effects. Plus a hefty budget surely doesn’t go astray either. Also adding to the visual spectacular is the action set pieces. Whether it’s Alita’s Panzer Kunst fighting style, or the motorball games, even though we know these are all CGI, they still are intensely fun to watch, and you may develop an urge to want to buy a pair of rollerblades and go skating after seeing this.
Initially the film starts off well with a solid origin story feel courtesy of a screenplay by Rodriguez, Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (of recent Netflix cyberpunk series Altered Carbon). We get to learn about Alita and where she came from, but also learn with her about the world she inhabits. Her enthusiasm for everything is infectious and endearing. There’s some obvious necessary exposition delivered by Waltz’s Dr Ido which could’ve been better served being shown rather than told. But the whole first half actually feels rather warm and fun. When the film starts feeling clunky and weighed down is in the back half as we jump from Alita’s interest in motorball, to wanting to become a Hunter Warrior, to her wanting to learn more about her past, to discovering she was previously a soldier. It’s all a bit too rushed and feels like they’re cramming in as much as they can before the run time is up. And then to add some more frustration is that the ending leaves it gapingly open for a potential sequel, which leaves us as an audience feeling like there’s been no real payoff to the story so far.
It’s a testament to Salazar’s performance that she manages to carry the majority of the screen time as well as maintain our interest in her character’s journey all whilst mo-capping her butt off to create this fascinating CGI character. Waltz is also good as the kind-hearted doctor with some emotional baggage of his own. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly play some shady antagonists but aren’t really used to their full potential. Whilst Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley get to ham it up as cyborg foils for our lead. Keep your eyes peeled for a particular uncredited cameo of a well known actor too.
Then there’s the entire YA twee romantic subplot with Hugo, which is terrible. Hugo is an awful one dimensional character lumped with teenage tropes and stereotyping and poor Keann Johnson doesn’t have much good dialogue to work with. He’s supposed to enable Alita to have emotional growth but all he does is cause trouble, say awfully cringey lines and makes her cry. Alita is a strong independent cyborg who don’t need no man and she could’ve easily kicked him to the curb. It’s a bit of a shame considering that Kalgoridis wrote some exceptionally strong badass female characters in Altered Carbon that she wasn’t able to imbue more of that into this protagonist.
Alita: Battle Angel is a visually spectacular wild ride, with some wondrous world building, fast paced action set pieces and a fascinating performance by Rosa Salazar. The film does struggle in its back half though by throwing a bit too much into the pot that makes it feel clunky and incapable of focussing on a straight-forward arc. Aside from some of its story and character pitfalls, the films ability to immerse you in this futuristic world and endear you to its lead character makes for a mostly enjoyable watch.
Alita: Battle Angel – In Cinemas Now