Alita: Battle Angel is an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro original manga series Battle Angel Alita. Directed by Robert Rodriguez this movie has been in development for ages. I think I heard first mention of it back in 2001. Originally the movie was supposed to be directed by James Cameron as a prelude project to Avatar. Well, we all know how long that project has taken. Nonetheless Alita: Battle Angel has been completed and I think it is damn worthwhile. The movie succeeds on many fronts: fantastic characters and cast, strong visuals and a good story. If I failed to convince you to see this movie then go and read the rest of the review below.
An Origin Story
Alita: Battle Angel feels a lot a like an origin story. Alita is a broken cyborg put back together by Dr. Dyson Ido. And so starts her journey of trying to uncover whom she is and who made her. However, in the world of Alita: Battle Angel life is complicated. Set 300 years after a devastating war between Earth and the Mars colonies mankind is now restricted to one city on Earth. Actually there are two, the supposedly floating utopia Zalem and the underlying Iron City. The latter is the recipient of all the junk of Zalem as it falls to the ground. Alita: Battle Angel is set in Iron City, with Zalem mostly there as a plot device.
Iron city and Zalem
Despite Iron City being the lesser of two there is still a significant amount of technology. Many people receive augmentations as cyborgs. For entertainment its population watches Motorball racing, a type of blood sport on roller-blades. As you may guess life in Iron City is hard. Firearms are forbidden, a restriction placed by Zalem, while bounty hunters roam the street. Meanwhile young women are being murdered and dismembered. The perpetrator having some unknown use for their body parts. And so starts Alita: Battle Angel.
Starring Alita: Battle Angel is Rosa Salazar as the titular cyborg character. Readers may know her from The Divergent Series: Insurgent and The Maze Runner movies. The chemistry between her and fellow star Keean Johnson ensures the story works throughout all the twists and turns of the movie.
Fantastic supporting cast
However, the real treat of Alita are the wonderful supporting characters. First up is Dr. Dyson Ido, played by the always fantastic Christoph Waltz. Ido discovers Alita on a trash heap and manages to reassemble her. Because Alita is initially often confused and willful the viewer looks to Ido for strength. He is her Obi-Wan Kenobi. Alita: Battle Angel makes the situation more complicated when Alita suspects Ido of being the murderer of the young women. Eventually Ido reveals he is also a Hunter-Warrior – chasing rogue cyborgs for bounties to ensure his robotics clinic can remain open. In fact, so is the character development of Ido throughout the movie that is threatens to overshadow Alita’s story.
Another fantastic character is Chiren, played by Jennifer Connolly. Chiren was Ido’s former wife. They are both in exile from Zalem. After the death of their daughter at the hands of a deranged cyborg Chiren separated from Ido, but both characters still orbit each other. So great is Chiren’s desire to return to Zalem she starts to work on questionable cyborg material for the unofficial king of Iron City – a man named Vector (played by Mahershala Ali).
Jennifer Connolly’s character is complicated, just like Waltz’s. At first she appears to be the villain, or just a henchman, but her character evolves. The movie starts by depicting her as the proverbial femme-fatale often seen in manga. In one scene she even wears little more than a garter belt and stockings. However, this is a red-herring, one in a movie filled with them. Chiren discovers back her humanity and just like the other characters who long for going up to Zalem she reconsiders.
Special mention should also go out to Ed Skrein as the cyborg Zapan and Jeff Fahey (the pilot from Lost) who plays cyborg Hunter-Killer McTeague. McTeague uses a pack of cyborg dogs to hunt bounties and this leads to a somewhat funny and sad moment when a real dogs intervenes.
So Alita: Battle Angel sports a wonderful cast and wonderful characters. It contains a not unreasonable amount of violence and gore and it is often albeit unintentionally funny. To complete the movie are its strong visuals. With a cyberpunk style that reminds me of The Fifth Element and Blade Runner there is little that goes wrong. Perhaps the CGI is a bit overdone in the final act. The visuals are further made strong by the cinematography. Sunlight feels warm, neon light feels cold but nonetheless soothing. Bill Pope, who also worked on The Matrix movies deserves as much credit as director Robert Rodriguez.
Not without some flaws
Despite the fact that there is a lot to like about Alita the movie is not without significant flaws. For a start it is a tad too long, in the final act Alita has to defeat a succession of enemies, call them boss fights, and it drags a little. Also, because Alita is an adaptation of a manga series brings with it some problems. There is the obvious need to distill substantial material down to a 2+ hour script while retaining the essence of the original material. At times Alita: Battle Angel feels rushed with plot development occurring in quick succession.
I thoroughly enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel. Despite not being directed by James Cameron I can still sense his influence. The story succeeds when it remains focused on its small scale and sometimes falters when it doesn’t. That said, Alita: Battle Angel has set itself up to be the first movie in a series. No doubt the floating city of Zalem and its mysterious inhabitant Nova will play an important part. I hope Alita: Battle Angel will do well as the box office, but with a not insignificant budget of 170 million I fear it may falter like Mortal Engines.