There are two moments, or scenes, early on in Alita: Battle Angel that define the movie to come. The first is the moment young Alita (Rosa Salazar) wakes from her long slumber after Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers her parts in a scrapyard. She checks out her new body, getting a feel for the new parts, her fingers, toes, and pretty face without a scratch on it. She interacts with the room, the world around her, and as an audience we’re witness to a computer-animated creation that pushes the envelope of what visual effects are capable of. Even as producer, James Cameron has done it again. Even more than the King of the World’s fingerprints, this scene is all about identity. The second is Alita’s first brush with Nova-Vector villainy as three cyborg assassins come for Dr. Ido in the street. What follows is one exhilarating action sequence wherein Alita, and the filmmakers themselves, finally get to show off. Combining tactile cyborg prosthetics and a penchant for snarling camp and grindhouse aesthetic, it is certainly the footprint of director Robert Rodriguez.
Pinocchio by way of artificial intelligence and cyber-punk dystopia, Alita rarely feels like the YA rip-off it could’ve been, often eschewing the typical preoccupation with haves and have-nots (although there’s some of that too) and an all-powerful government overlord in favor of a wild sport called Motorball and excellent world-building. Rodriguez takes his time setting the stage, dropping hints and heroic backstories to fill out Iron City instead of throwing it to dialogue. Exposition is thankfully more subtle than you would expect, particularly in a script co-written by Cameron. Granted, it’s a little odd that an epic narrative such as this is seemingly told over the span of a few weeks. If you look too closely, you’ll notice a romantic subplot that might be rushed, even if it doesn’t feel that way, or a father-daughter relationship that might be unearned, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Rodriguez does a commendable job glossing over the rough edges with good acting and a willingness to “live” in Iron City. We get a feel for it before the shit hits the fan.
Every character, from Alita to Ido to a cache of colorful assassins called “hunter warriors” are well-drawn with distinctive personalities, motivations, and reasons for being. In a film about cyborgs and body dysmorphia, the latter is all-important. Jennifer Connelly’s Chiren is Ido’s ex-wife, a woman desperate for status in the sky city of Zalem, a false utopia that she and Ido were expelled from many years ago. Now she’s beholden to the whims of Vector (Mahershala Ali), an entrepreneur and pawn of Zalem’s chief scientist Nova. Vector is an opportunist, Nova a mysterious ideologue who can transfer his consciousness from body to body. Ido himself moonlights as a hunter warrior to fund his own robot clinic, and he’s resurrected Alita to combat the loss of his own daughter. While the coming-of-age takes precedent, it’s not hard to find parallels between Ido and Alita’s predicament and transgender issues, deepening a plot already rife with heavy themes. It’s been said that manga books like Alita and Ghost in the Shell were ahead of their time in tackling such issues, and Battle Angel makes good on that reputation.
As Ido, Waltz doesn’t exactly break new ground, but he’s perfectly cast as a doctor still mourning and living vicariously through his newfound discovery. Ali and Connelly imbue their characters with a wealth of quiet ferocity and seething regret, respectively, winning over a script that sometimes shortchanges them for other subplots. However, Alita lives or dies on Alita herself, and both Rosa Salazar and the team of animators assigned to bring her to life have worked overtime. There are brief glimpses of a bad performance or bad rendering. Whenever Alita is seen in medium or under flat lighting the cartoon of it all is obvious. Overall though, this is a creation on par with the likes of Thanos and Gollum, if not quite the photo-real wizardry of Caesar. My jaw dropped at a scene when Alita emerges from a lake inside a spaceship, her face dripping wet, or when Dr. Ido brushes her hair. It’s quite impressive and incredibly tangible, and suddenly Cameron’s influence is apparent. For her part, Salazar is game for an entire arc, from puppy-dog little girl to rebellious teenager, and eventually inspiring warrior.
What truly protects Alita from the myriad of genre pitfalls is a romance that actually works, no matter how rushed it might be on the page. Credit to Keean Johnson as Hugo, an actor with a Disney Channel face and something more behind the eyes. With a pretty boy complexion he’s not exactly the best man for the job of a leather-wearing, bandanna-toting bad boy, but he’s got a pair of shifty eyes that do the character justice in those little moments when he’s called upon to lie or tell the truth. He and Salazar enjoy ample chemistry and, despite a timeline of a few weeks max, their arc from grinning strangers to self-professed lovers is somehow believable and even moving. A climactic scene far above the city produces sweaty palms for more than one reason, not the least of which is the tragic end threatening their very relationship and existence. Roll your eyes if you must, these actors sell every minute of screen time they spend together. This is especially true, and amusing, when facing rogue hunter-warrior Zapath together at an exclusive club, one of three or four memorable scenes featuring underrated actor Ed Skrein.
Alita: Battle Angel deserves an audience, for pushing the envelope in visual effects, for making old feel new again, and for maintaining a beating heart amid so many distractions and pretty things flying at us. It’s a testament to fleshing out a fictional city and world for the betterment of its characters, to Japan’s funky-cool robot fetish and thematic bravery in storytelling, and to Jim and Bobby’s ability to combine their individual strengths to make one bad-ass manga extravaganza. I skipped 3D but the crystal-clear photography tells me it would’ve been a literal sight for sore eyes. In spite of so many common pitfalls, Alita avoids most of them in service of a bonafide ride through Iron City. Besides the book on which it is based, Battle Angel is the brainchild of Cameron and Rodriguez, and for good and bad you can feel like it in every frame of this science fiction opus.