“Alita: Battle Angel” Movie Review


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     James Cameron has long been planning a feature adaptation of the Japanese manga “Battle Angel Alita”, going back as far as 2004 where the plan was for the film to be his followup to “Titanic”.  Cameron toiled in a series of fascinating underwater documentaries during that time and for whatever reason never brought “Alita” to the screen, but would, of course, go on to make “Avatar” in 2009, which ultimately shelved the project.  Ironically, with a series of sequels to “Avatar” in production, Cameron decided to hand the reigns for the newly titled  “Alita: Battle Angel” to director Robert Rodriguez, another of my favorite filmmakers whose credits include “Desperado”, “Sin City”, & “From Dusk Till Dawn”.  Cameron co-produces and provided the script along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis, which tells the story of a young female cyborg brought back to life by a doctor who repairs cyborgs by trade, but also deals with the daily reminders of a tragic loss that left him forever scarred.

     In the opening scenes, we meet Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) as he scavenges for robot parts within a garbage dump seemingly located in the center of a run down city, while high above, trash falls from a massive stucture called Zalem that somehow hovers over the ruins.  Later, we learn of a war that nearly ended human kind and forced the people left to live together within a grungy run down metropolis called Iron City.  And in much of the same fashion as similar scenarios depicted in films like “Snowpiercer” and “Elysium”, it is the lower class people who must scrape by within the scum filled dirty streets of Iron City, while the higher class, rich people live in what is perceived as luxury in Zalem.  We never actually see Zalem in the film, instead leaving the audience to wonder in much the same way as the characters do.  Essentially, everyone’s goal is to someday get there, with a rumored amount of money it would take and many of the inhabitants of Iron City involved in some sort of scam that will allow them to someday make the trip.

     Dr. Ido finds the remains of a cyborg body within the garbage dump and brings it back to his lab where he affixes the head and upper torso that remained intact to a robotic body that was once meant for his daughter.  When the cyborg awakens, she doesn’t remember where she came from or who she is, but given Dr. Ido’s recent loss and the fact she reminds him of his lost daughter, he gives her the name Alita (Rosa Salazar in a motion capture performance).  But it isn’t long before Alita, through a number of situations she finds herself in early on, begins to remember portions of her past.  One of which is the fact she is really good at fighting.

     With the Iron City population composed of a majority of people who in some way are at least partially robotic, the hoarding of parts is both a business, as well as a common crime in which street thugs regularly accost those with new upgrades and hold them down while sawing off whatever they please, particularly looking for versions of arms and legs that also serve as or conceal weapons.  One of the notable conspirators of this racket is Vector (Mahershala Ali), a higher class business man who runs a popular sports league called Motorball, which is a hybrid of car racing with roller derby, but also reminded me a lot of an arcade game I used to play called Cyberball.  In this competition, juiced up robotic cyborgs equipped with motorized roller blades chase whoever has the ball around a massive track, as they attempt to violently remove the ball from their possession before it is returned to the starting point.  And it just so happens Alita, with her immense strength, quickness, and athleticism, excels at the game.

     She is given the opportunity to compete after gaining the attention of a street hustler named Hugo (Keean Johnson), of whom she takes a liking to, and begins to display the same kind of teenage angst you might see in a girl her age who is human, which also forces Dr. Ido to function as her father and deal with these issues like a parent would.  Ido’s estranged wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), conveniently re-enters his life when Alita begins to evolve, which complicates matters given she is currently shacked up with Vector.   There is clearly something inside of Alita that wants to come out.  There’s an ongoing feeling she is meant for more and has likely experienced things others could only dream of, such as actually having been on Zalem.

     There’s a scene where all of this essentially materializes when Alita and Hugo walk into a bar that is set up almost exactly like the one in “From Dusk Till Dawn”, but instead of truckers and bikers, the bar is populated with cyborg bounty hunters.  It’s the kind of set up where I half expected Tom Savini to be sitting at one of the tables waiting to greet someone with that famous groin gun that has made an appearance in several of Rodriguez’s films, but what we end up getting is even better.  Fueled by CGI courtesy of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, “Alita: Battle Angel” thrills with an array of astounding sequences in which she takes on lethal bounty hunters, Vector’s nefarious henchmen, as well as the adrenaline packed high speed game play in the Motorball arena.  The entire film is a visual feast, complete with intriguing world building and ultra detailed design elements that play quite original and avoid the standard echos of classics like “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner” that we see so often in science fiction films of this kind.  It’s the kind of visual punch not unlike last year’s “Ready Player One”.

     Cameron without question ensures the film sets up a sequel, if for no other reason than the driving force behind the entire plot is a mysterious man named Nova who has the ability to control Vector, among others, via some form of telepathy, all while remaining on Zalem.  And with the action centered on Alita figuring out who she is and what her abilities are, we soon realize there is another entire half of the story that isn’t told, as the ominous floating city above is never actually seen.  You begin to wonder what’s going on up there and how is it effecting what is happening down below.  I suppose that’s the next stop if this installment proves profitable enough to warrant a sequel, which remains to be seen given the reported $200 million dollar budget before marketing.  Quite a step up for Rodriguez who broke into the business with 1992’s “El Mariachi”, a film that cost $7000 to make.  GRADE: B+