Alita: Battle Angel (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 2019) – With no memory of her past but a stunning set of combative skills, Alita sets out to unravel the mystery of who she truly is.
Slick visuals and fantastic world-building drive Alita towards her becoming, making the dreary bits worth trudging through.
Neither genres nor audiences can bound Robert Rodriguez. To date, the Desperado director and Splat Pack member has delivered well-loved entertainment in almost every realm of cinema, from the gore galore of Planet Terror, to the family-friendly franchise of Spy Kids.
Alita: Battle Angel thus seems a neat fit for his directorial versatility. Set in a futuristic albeit dystopian future, the manga adaptation aptly treads a delicate line between crowd-pleasing action and almost alienating grimness.
For one, Alita knows nothing her combative skills, made ready for an action-adventure of mass appeal. But her big, shining eyes can be deceptive. Darkness lurks in her history, as well as the post-apocalypse society of the future that has no place for the innocent.
In Iron City, man has turned to some of the most morbid trades for a living. Some incapacitate cyborgs by stealing their parts for crime boss Vector (Mahershala Ali). Others become bounty hunters. Many partake in the fatal sport of Motorball, all for the sake of money to fulfil the great dream – to move to the wealthy sky-city of Zalem.
When Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds Alita (Rosa Salazar) in the scrapyard, with no recollection of her past, he jumps at the opportunity to shield her blank slate from the dark of humanity. But his own world is not exactly a bright spot in the shadows. In a bid to protect him, the young cyborg soon discovers the world for herself, and is forced to unleash her inner natural hunter.
A promising start introduces how the societal divide eventually corrupts even the purest. The narrative also interests itself in world-building, like action films so rarely do. Subtlety shows, where the absence of hope is not seen in fallen buildings or scattered ruins, but in the mistrust and resigned spirits amongst strong warriors.
Less nuanced bits disappoint, especially in the villain department. One too many subplots make character development almost impossible. More brawns than brains are the assassin cyborgs Zapan (Ed Skrein) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) sent after Alita. The apparent mastermind quickly turns out to be manipulated by invisible strings, wasting Mahershala Ali’s performance in a throwaway role.
Alita’s only friend outside of home Hugo (Keean Johnson) is just as weakly written. Seldom does he ever escape the archetype of a love interest. He is also one of few male characters to suffer the passive fate of a damsel in distress. Twice, for that matter.
As a result, Alita forms a much stronger relationship in family than romance. Her sadly few moments with Ido turns out the most heartfelt. These emotional touches add necessary layers to Alita’s otherwise thin motivation to fight.
And fight well she does. Never has devastation look better, with a little help of digital effects in the right hands. Like many dream projects before it, Alita has had to wait sixteen years for visual technology to catch up with what its source material demands.
Patience certainly paid off for producer James Cameron, who has found a great directing partner in Robert Rodriguez, though the screenplay may need a little more work. Now we ourselves must find patience too for the global box office numbers, which hopefully will be enough for the solid sequel that the cliffhanger desperately needs.