Alita: Battle Angel is a creation from the talented filmmaking team of Robert Rodriguez, writer and director, and James Cameron, who produced the movie and received a screenwriting credit. Although I found myself liking much of the film, due mostly to the interesting world Rodriguez and Cameron have built, Alita doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its legendary producers.
The story takes place in Iron City, a Blade Runner-esque metropolis where people of the world have flocked since The Fall (an apocalyptic war that took place 300 years before the current timeline). Above Iron City lies the only surviving floating city, called Zalem. Only the highest of social classes live there.
Zalem dumps its waste onto the outer limits of Iron City, which is where the cryptic Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds a female cyborg in the rubble. With her human brain still intact, Ido is able to bring her back to life. The cyborg awakens with no memory of who she is, and Ido names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). The doctor brings Alita out into the world of Iron City, explaining its dangers, including the lack of any real law enforcement. This is also the first introduction of the handsome street youth Hugo (Keean Johnson), who instantly has a connection with Alita.
The biggest reason I don’t think Alita: Battle Angel is particularly a good film is because it introduces too many villains and plotlines, which made it tough for me to follow the overall story. There’s not just Alita’s mysterious origins and her journey to figure out who she is, but also a murderer on the loose roaming at night, killing people and selling their parts. Then there is Dr. Ido’s estranged wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who builds cyborgs to compete in the vastly popular sport of Motorball, which is run by a man named Vector (Mahershala Ali). All of this is overlooked by an all-powerful man from Zalem named Nova, who tasks Chiren and Vector with killing Alita out of an assumed fear of her combat skills. Oh, and by the way, Nova can somehow tap into people’s consciousness and use them as his puppets.
What I would have liked for director Robert Rodriguez to do is focus more on Alita’s origins and follow her journey to discovering her past. If you’ve seen any of Rodriguez’s previous work, especially Sin City, you know he’s more than capable of world-building and transporting the audience into his films. And that’s what is lacking in Alita. The world of Iron City is so unique and visually interesting that I wish the film would have explored more of it. There’s even a beautiful scene that takes place outside the city limits in a jungle where an old spaceship had crashed during The Fall. The decision to adapt three of the books from the manga into a single script keeps us from truly being immersed in Iron City.
When James Cameron is attached to a movie, you know that the CGI and other special effects are going to be outstanding, and that’s where the strength in Alita lies. Alita is brought to life with motion capture, allowing Rosa Salazar to physically play Alita in scenes with her castmates. The result is mind-blowingly realistic. Besides a few moments where Alita looks sort of terrifying based on the camera angle, she looked like a citizen of Iron City (yes, the eyes do stand out, but they didn’t distract me as much as I thought they would).
It’s interesting to wonder what the film could have been under the direction of James Cameron, who would have served in that role if he didn’t have his commitment to the Avatar franchise. With Cameron’s almost second-to-none pedigree for building blockbuster franchises, Alita may have had a better chance for commercial success. The Rodriguez-directed version does have a lot of style, but the film’s lack of depth in exploring its themes results in a movie that presents nothing new to the science fiction genre.
How to View: Alita: Battle Angel’s amazing special effects and action scenes are undoubtedly worth seeing, just maybe not at full ticket price.