“Alita Battle Angel” (2019)
Running time: 108 minutes
Written by: James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Featuring: Rosa Salazar ,Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Keean Johnson
Alita: “You made the biggest mistake of your life.”
Vector: “And what’s that?”
Alita: “Underestimating who I am.”
Released this week on DVD/Blu-ray and 4K is “Alita Battle Angel” (2019) a movie that has been adapted by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez not the most immediate names when it comes to collaborators but despite earlier reviews as well as the disappointing box office this is a sci-fi movie that takes its place proudly within the genre, not only that but it is in fact, for me one of the highlights of the year so far, that in terms of spectacle surpasses most of the cinema offerings for some time. Whilst this is not a new property at all, in fact it is based on the 1990s Japanese manga series ‘Battle Angel Alita’ by Yukito Kishiroit does something that the recently troubled “Ghost in the Shell” (2018) does better, it has something to say about positions of power in today’s world, the integration of technology, the corruption of power structures and it offers a lead character that has real emotion under the massive amounts of CGI that populated the movie. The other important aspect of “Alita Battle Angel” is that it is the ‘Pinnochio’ narrative re-told for not only a new generation of moviegoers but it changes aspects that appeal to not only that new audience but shows that there is no story like an old story.
It is no secret that James Cameron had been eyeing this new movie as a directing vehicle, in fact he had mentioned in interviews that this was a project close to his heart but with ‘Avatar’ duties taking up much of his time he only had the ability to take a run at the script as well as co-produce, choosing genre director Robert Rodriguez to take the helm. The good news was that like many of Cameron’s movies “Alita Battle Angel” has a central character that is not only a woman but someone that has to literally battle her way from who she was to someone who is fully formed all the while proving that she is no joke, doesn’t need a man, is more than a pretty face and is someone to be reckoned with. While most of the performances are at least very good, as well as the cast being all high-quality performers the only real crack in its armour is the story which at times is a little indulgent as well as myopic, but that can be glossed over especially with extremely high quality CGI, which like many James Cameron movies is absolutely cutting edge.
“Alita Battle Angel” is set in the year 2563, 300 years after Earth is devastated by a catastrophic interplanetary war known as “The Fall” or “The Great War”, scientist Dr. Dyson Ido discovers a disembodied female cyborg with an intact human brain. Ido attaches a new cyborg body to the brain and names her “Alita” after his deceased daughter. Alita befriends Hugo, who dreams of moving to the wealthy sky city of Zalem. Hugo introduces Alita to Motorball, a battle royale racing sport played by cyborg gladiators. Secretly, Hugo robs cyborgs of their parts for Vector, owner of the Motorball tournament.From here the movie moves along to some fairly obvious tropes as well as some that will surprise viewers, with a narrative that is mostly linear with a few flashbacks and revelations made throughout the run time. Not to give away spoilers but this was made with a sequel in mind as there is a feeling of a story not quite ended which some may find jarring, I for one did not as I had been warned about this aspect of the movie.
In terms of the direction by Robert Rodriguez there is no real surprise that the movie is full of action as well as a healthy dose of humour which has really become his signature as is the colour palette that he uses. Rodriguez has come a long way since his legendary debut with “El Mariachi” (1992) that launched his mostly low budget career, he has been able to do what few directors have accomplished before, be part of at least four franchises all under his own steam, many making a lot at the box office. He has also been a part of the television landscape, again mostly successfully, in fact it is difficult to believe that it has been over five years since he directed a movie, since “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (2014) a misfire on every level. Now with this new movie he has embraced a genre that he has toyed with for some time, science fiction with a script by James Cameron who helps steer this movie towards something that is almost special but is ultimately let down by a formulaic script as well as tropes that feel more at home in the 1990s.
The titular character in “Alita Battle Angel” is played by relative newcomer Rosa Salazar who whilst is physically present is also had CGI work done, most noticeably on her face to give a more alien look but not taking away from her ethnic origins which was a nice compromise, one I believe that would have been driven by the director. There is no doubt that headlining a movie that costs upward of US$200 million would be a stressful situation to be in but Salazar has had great support not only from her director and behind the scenes crew, but most definitely from her co-stars which is why she carries off the part with not only great skill but is able to actually act given all the weirdness around her, Salazar is nothing short of excellent in the role as well as being a part of a very good genre movie. It may seem obvious to say that a double Oscar winner would be good in any movie, but it is not an unfair criticism to say that German born Christoph Waltz can be hired to play villains and play them very well, that is why I loved him here as Alita’s ‘father’. Here Waltz gives a subtle performance as a caring father who wants the best for his daughter as well as those around him, he is the virtuous human character that has fallen from on high and is happy with his lot, he is a Geppetto who has found what he was missing, needing to protect it but ultimately letting her go, it is possibly Waltz’s most human performance ever. In terms of the rest of the cast that includes Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Ed Skrein they all give muted performances which is odd considering that they have all been in broad large movies, my only offering on their performances is that they possibly thought the movie was going in a different direction, but they are all a bit of a letdown especially compared to the commitment and surprise of both Salazar and Waltz.
Even though parts of “Alita Battle Angel” read like a take on the Norman Jewison classic “Rollerball” (1975) as well as representing many science fiction tropes that involve a governing body out of control as well as exploiting its people, most obviously everything that has ever stemmed from Orwell’s ‘1984’ (1948) it offers a fresh millennium looking take on the ‘Pinocchio’ story albeit with revisions which I found to be the root of the story, one in which many could identify with especially with the advent of social media. What young people at one time do not feel lost or without some form of identity, who have to prove who they are especially in front of the entire world (or at least it feels like that) to become someone, especially young women. Sure the movie is not perfect, there is far too much time spent on the ‘B’ story as well as the love story that seems forced into the relatively short time the movie is set over, we do not see enough of certain characters, far too much of others who seem superfluous to proceedings which can be tiresome. The ‘bad guys’ are ultimately glorified henchmen with, again seemingly forced backgrounds while the ‘big bad’ remains aloof from proceedings, a definite weakness in terms of narrative.
While I was initially sceptical of this movie I enjoyed it a great deal even with potential shortcomings, it is completely enjoyable with enough themes as well as action to keep an audience entertained with an engagement factor that for me was high. My hope for this movie is that a sequel is produced even though the initial criticism and box office were extremely soft, two elements I believe were quite unfair.