It’s the 26th Century. After a devastating global conflict, humanity is reduced to only a few settlements, one of which is Iron City, a dystopian metropolis that exists underneath the shining sky city of Zalem. While exploring Iron City’s scrap yard, bionics expert Dyson Ido (Christoph Walz) comes upon the remains of a female cyborg. Reactivating her and naming her Alita (Rosa Salazar), he discovers that she has no memory of her prior life but has extraordinary abilities hidden away inside of her. Alita is soon drawn into both a romance with the street runner Hugo (Keean Johnson) and into conflict with Vector (Mahershala Ali), a crime boss who controls both Motorball, a death race rally for cyborg athletes, and most of Iron City itself.
I know what you might be thinking: post-apocalypse, teenage female protagonist with special powers, forbidden romance, puppet master, oppressive government…check, check, check. It’s the elements of nearly every young adult sci-fi adaptation we’ve seen in the last 10 years. But Alita’s story pre-dates all of that.
It’s the dawn of the 21st Century. James Cameron has acquired the rights to Yuktio Kishiro’s manga series Gunnm, a. k. a. Battle Angel Alita. A script is written, Cameron announces it as his next project, but then something happens that sidetracks him: a little billion-dollar film called Avatar. Just as it seemed that Alita’s story would remain in the junkyard called Development Hell, Robert Rodriguez was given the blessing of both Cameron and Kishiro to direct the final product. The man who made his name by making a film for $7,000 was going to make a blockbuster for $175 million.
And the final result or that strange, circuitous route to final cut? It’s wildly ambitious, visually brilliant and a beautiful mess all at once.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: Alita: Battle Angel is one of the most dizzying and exhilarating films in a while and certainly the most visually impressive of Rodriguez’ career. It’s the kind of film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and it even makes a solid case for the continuation of the 3D surcharge. Even Alita’s huge, anime-style eyes that were so off-putting in the film’s trailers seem almost natural in the context of the movie’s landscape.
The design of the film itself deserves its own billing above the title, and it’s clear that a tremendous amount of care and detail went into making Alita’s world look like a real, working universe. The cyborg designs are both gorgeously monstrous (like Ed Skrein’s pretty-boy hunter-killer Zapan) and monstrously gorgeous (like Jackie Earle Haley’s hulking brute Grewishka). Iron City itself is a fusion of multiple Earth cultures, but heavily influenced by Central America, giving the city a tactile realness without sacrificing its more cyberpunk-influenced elements.
Rodriguez handles his increased palette and expanded toy box as well as he does the DIY, grindhouse aesthetic of his more idiosyncratic films. In fact, Alita’s unique energy and combination of intense action, emotion-driven characters and narrative oddities is the perfect fit for the man who did Sin City and Planet Terror. There is rarely a dull moment in the film, thanks to Rodriguez’ impeccable visuals and over-the-top set pieces, wonderfully underscored by Junkie XL’s emphatic score. Whether it’s a bar brawl between Alita and a dozen cyborg bounty hunters or the film’s blissfully chaotic Motorball game, you’ll have to look hard to find a more immediate, grab-you-by-the-throat thrillcoaster.
That being said… (sigh…)
On a purely narrative level, the film feels like it was itself assembled from random parts in Iron City’s junkyard. While it mostly-faithfully adapts the first four volumes of Gunnm‘s original 90s run, as well as including specific elements original to the manga’s very brief anime adaptation, the story feels like it has significant gaps. Which occasionally border on ravines. While it is nice to not have a first act that features a ton of exposition dumps, the details of how the world got to the place it is in the 26th Century are frustratingly vague. And the flashbacks Alita has over the course of her story raise more questions than they answer. Character arcs feel organic, but they also feel like they’re missing steps. Alita and Hugo’s romance features genuine and engaging chemistry between the actors, but it also feels like it progresses too quickly and without showing all the work necessary to get there.
This leads to a fairly rough and uneven first act, as we struggle to put the characters into their setting. It’s easier to swallow the way the story progresses if you’re familiar with the specific beats and conventions of manga and anime, which tends to be stingy in giving away its secrets. But if taken as a purely Western blockbuster, it comes across as more confused and disjointed than anything else, even for a screenwriter as fond of narrative shorthand as James Cameron is.
But that rough first act is propelled forward by a talented and capable cast, especially Rosa Salazar as Alita herself. Salazar performed the role through motion capture, and while the character’s textures occasionally veer too far into the Uncanny Valley, she moves and exists in a space as real as anyone else in the frame. It doesn’t take long for Alita to appear to be a natural part of the film, and much of that has to deal with Salazar’s fully-realized performance. Starting out fairly robotic and becoming more vulnerable and human with each scene, she makes Alita easy to sympathize with and root for. An early scene where Alita discovers chocolate is so charming that it almost seamlessly locks the character and audience together.
There isn’t a bad performance in the rest of the cast, either, which might be a given considering that several of them have Oscars to their names. Christoph Walz plays a perfect paternal unit to Alita, the actor coming off as both warm and authoratitive at once. Like how Salazar opens up as Alita learns about the world, so too does her dynamic with Walz evolve and shift. Mahershala Ali makes a great antagonist, cool and collected but always intimidating. He’s often paired with Jennifer Connelly as Dr. Chiren, who trades menace for mystery. Connelly’s timeless beauty, compelling voice and complex approach to the character make Chiren a highlight of any scene she’s in, even if the film never seems to quite know what to do with her.
Despite its narrative failings, there’s still a lot to recommend about <I>Alita</I>. It’s honestly fascinating to see Rodriguez work with such a massive canvas, and he unleashes the full force of his imagination during the film’s multiple action climaxes. Salazar’s magnetic performance as Alita herself is alone worth the watch, and she’s so compelling that she almost makes you forget about the film’s lost story beats. By combining <I>Alita</I>’s manga and anime with his own sensibilities and energy, Rodriguez has created a film that feels vital and alive, even while he can’t hide the seams barely holding it together. Like Alita herself, it’s a construct with a beating heart that pulses stronger the harder it works.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-