Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson
Runtime: 122 Minutes
It's paradoxically difficult yet simple to understand why mainstream Hollywood (more specifically than western) cinema struggles to adapt Japanese anime and manga properties to screen for western audiences. With all the money and lavish production qualities at their disposal, it’s hard to imagine that few of these have been able to successfully translate the dynamic visual pallets, melodramatic emotions and distinct tonal fluctuations of revered and celebrated source materials in translation.
Enter Alita: Battle Angel; one of the most imaginative, engaging and visually stunning western adaptations since The Wachowski’s Speed Racer, and the first legitimately great blockbuster of 2019.
Set in the year 2563, the story follows the titular Alita (Rosa Salazar) a disembodied "core" cyborg who awakens with no memory in a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by a technological fall. Dr Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds her and gives her a new body. They later discover that Alita is more than what she seems and has an extraordinary past. As she navigates her new life, she battles other machines who are empowered with skills while serching for her identity.
The world of Iron City hanging below the sky-utopia of Zalem is a beautifully rendered universe of danger, rust and the busyness of people and conflict. The visual detail and design for the various Hunter Warrior cyborgs as distinctive and fantastical, with seamless blends of human performance and digital effects to portray these heavily amplified beings.
At the centre of it all is Alita, brought to life by some of the best work Weta Digital has yet produced. A digitally augmented motion-capture performance by Salazar is quite literally one of the most convincing digital characters ever brought to film (giant anime eyes and all), and the efforts of the thousands working behind the scenes to animate her every movement should be applauded. But it would all be for nought if Salazar wasn’t giving an likable and empathetic human performance to inform her – which she absolutely is.
On this canvas, Rodriguez is also allowed to flex his aptitudes with action cinema on a scale he could have only dreamt of. The work of the second unit, as well as the direction of Rodriguez, makes every brawl, from alleyways to barfights to the spectacle of Motorball, as visually coherent as it is exciting and brutal. All of which is enhanced by the terrific sound design, and Bill Pope’s spectacular digital 3D cinematography.
But spectacle and technical acumen can only carry things so far, and much like the best blockbusters of its kind, Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez both share the core understanding that simple doesn’t equal stupid, and sometimes making the storytelling, characters and themes broader and more widely appealing is in service of allowing the audience to immerse itself in the cartoonish world in which it is set.
For all the guff that James Cameron may receive nowadays (some of it deservedly so), it cannot be denied that he is a very strong storyteller. His and Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay grounds the original 90s Gunnm text in the familiar archetypal trappings of the hero’s journey with characters broadly drawn enough to follow and empathise with
This inevitably leads to some of the film’s shortcomings. As compelling as the core story and relationships are made, there is the feeling that components of the journey are missing or have been truncated to keep it to a shorter length. The beats all mostly hit exactly where they are designed too, which some terrific payoffs for some of the characters, but the admittedly hurried final stretch leaves a few too many questions intentionally unanswered to be addressed in sequels and as such Alita’s quest for identity feels a cut short.
The components that end up filling in the gaps beyond the satisfying action sequences and movements are twofold. The first being the performances of the supporting cast. Waltz is convincing as a pining father figure for Alita, Jennifer Connelly is a disenchanted foil as his old flame turned toward the enemy, Mahershala Ali gets to rattle of Miltonesque diatribes as a bad guy, and Ed Skerin and Jackie Earle Haley turn their nasty cyborgs into scene-stealers. Newcomer Keean Johnson is fine as Hugo, Alita's love interest, but he acquits himself well enough with what he’s handed.
The other thing is that it takes to the roots of the source material by making the film as weird, expressive and violent as it can under the circumstances of its rating. Cameron and Rodriguez take few liberties with the source material and dive headfirst into the fantastical weirdness of its premise and the visuals they can conjure that make it very fun to watch.
Beyond the bloodshed of the final act (and a specific character mutilation that will make audiences both gasp and wheeze with laughter) with decapitations, robot dogs and flailing tendrils, there’s the bizarre sexual energy exuding from Alita at all times. From her transition into a ‘woman’ with the appearance of a new mechanical body to her unzipping of her top before love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson) to... hand him her robot heart.
Existential quandaries and philosophical musings be damned, Alita: Battle Angel is exciting, engaging, viscerally and technically accomplished – but best of all, weird as fuck. This is a terrific piece of popcorn entertainment, and even with some condensed plotting and overly simplistic themes ruling over it, this is a film that leads with its heart and takes the audience through this journey and world with all the enthusiasm and joy that its filmmakers can muster.