There was a lot riding against Alita: Battle Angel.
For one, it’s a Hollywood manga adaptation, which have historically been poorly received both critically and commercially. Then there’s the issue of its director, Robert Rodriguez, who hasn’t had anything really hit on either front since 2005’s Sin City. And finally, there’s the film’s long development cycle: over 18 years, with James Cameron (who still produces and co-writes) exiting the director’s chair halfway through that process.
It turns out all that fear was unwarranted, because the resulting film lives up to the hype and then some, serving up a rollicking science-fiction adventure on a game-changing visual effects platter.
Alita follows, well, Alita (Rosa Salazar), a cyborg whose discovered in a trash heap by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) in Iron City, a somewhat dystopian settling underneath the floating metropolis of Zalem, where only a select few get to live. Did I mention this was set in the far future?
With no memories of her previous life, Alita becomes curious by the world around her, eventually stumbling onto Dr. Ido’s true profession as a bounty hunter of sorts known as a “Hunter Warrior”. She follows him into the profession, going deeper into the underworld of Iron City, discovering more about her past as the villainous Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his assistant Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) are on her trail.
All of the supporting cast does their job well. Christoph Waltz provides a gentle, fatherly presence while Marhershala Ali’s Vector hits the right notes as the gleefully evil protagonist behind some admittedly cool shades. However, it’s Rosa Salazar’s lead towers above all of her peers.
Through Salazar’s performance, we see Alita transform from a curious girl into a full-blown bad-ass and its is mesmerizing. She can spit out one-liners with the best of ’em while never leaving behind the character’s humanity. Salazar makes Alita such a deeply endearing character that it’s easy to forget that it’s a motion capture performance.
This brings us to the visual effects, which are nothing short of masterful. Rodriguez deftly integrates a fully computer-generated protagonist into a live-action world in a way that never once feels jarring. Alita simply belongs in the world around her.
What a world it is to be in. Iron City is a complex network of metallic bells and whistles that all seem to serve some functionality. This world is not simply something that looks neat, this is a lived-in space whose every detail points to a new aspect of its inhabitants’ daily lives.
It feels as though Robert Rodriguez finally has the budget to realize some of the big ideas he had back in films like the Spy Kids trilogy and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. This is never more apparent than in the action sequences, which play like live action approximations of anime- bombastic, graceful dances of violence that are really nothing like Hollywood has ever attempted before.
The film’s script, written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis is likely to be the biggest sticking point for most people. It’s, um, a lot. A lot of characters, a lot of locales, a lot of subplots, it’s just a lot.
To me, this is a non-issue, as every development serves Alita as a character. We learn a sizeable deal about the world she inhabits, from the aforementioned Hunter Warriors to Motorball, the sport which provides some of the most exciting action sequences in the film. It never feels like too much because we’re in Alita’s perspective, hungry to know more about every detail of Iron City.
Alita’s journey may not be rigidly structured, but it’s earnest in its intentions, taking us on a ride into an invigorating new world with no pretentions about wanting to do anything other than tell an entertaining tale. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Alita’s romance with Hugo (Keean Johnson) a local with whom she shares many awkward, yet tender, scenes. If there is a problem with the film’s script, it’s that it does set up quite a bit too much for the future, but with a world this intriguing, I can’t blame them for wanting to tell more stories.
Alita is an experience.
It’s chaotic and overwhelming yet also joyous and completely fresh in a way that reminds one of the first time they saw Star Wars. If that’s a bold claim, then it’s warranted, because Alita: Battle Angel is an instant science-fiction classic that has me begging for the next trip to Iron City.