Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
YIN: Alita: Battle Angel
I never thought I’d actually see this movie. Not because I wasn’t interested—far from it—but because we’d been promised the film since at least 2003. The epic sci-fi property is based on a nine-volume Japanese manga by Yukito Kishiro, and is so epic in scope that it’s no wonder visionary director James Cameron leapt at the chance to bring it to life. But then he decided to focus on his Avatar franchise . . . And so, the fate of Alita was put in limbo for almost 15 years until my fellow Texan Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Spy Kids) decided to pick up the baton.
It’s funny how often truth and fiction match up. The story begins with a man finding our heroine’s broken, seemingly lifeless body where it’s been laid upon a scrapheap for who knows how long. But with love, care, and guidance, she’s brought back to life and set on a fantastic adventure.
Very meta, right?
The completed film ends up covering a lot of ground, utilizing elements from the first four books of the source series, but still manages to feel properly paced and plotted. If I had one major gripe, it would be that the film is set up as the first in a series, and thus there is no specific endpoint that the characters and story are heading toward within this first film. That’s not to say there’s not progression, indeed there very much is, but plot is given a backseat to pushing through the more thematic elements of the narrative. By the end, the audience is left satiated about where the characters are, and what they still have to accomplish. It’s an incredibly difficult feat to pull off, but to the credit of writer/producer Cameron and director Rodriguez, they somehow balance it all out and make it work.
This is an origin story, not just in how Alita comes to be the “Battle Angel” but more importantly why. She has an incredibly rich, emotional arc that takes into account her dual nature as both machine of immense power and destructive force and human teenage girl moving through the world and trying to find her place in it. Incredibly, there are multiples scenes expressing this duality at once, crafting a layered and relatable being that actress Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner series) brings to life with skillful nuance. Much has been said about the abilities of visual effects to believably animate unrealistic characters, but as Andy Serkis has proven, these are nothing without the actor behind the effects. And as Serkis has also said, not everyone can pull it off.
Salazar undoubtedly can, offering looks, gestures, and a soulful window through those enlarged, anime-esque eyes. It’s a tough call to be asked to believably deliver power, rage, sweetness, empathy, and above all love and compassion in a single character. But that’s what we get at the too-human heart of the film.
Equally impressive is the amount of attention paid to each supporting character down the line. With most films, you’re lucky if the main one or two have any dimension, but we have an entire stable here that truly warrants the acting talents brought on board.
Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastards, Big Eyes) shines as the father/mentor to Alita, and is given a clear and tragic backstory that truly does drive each decision and emotion. His connection to Alita is subtle, never forced. Their bond only grows stronger, and even in a short space of time we feel the progression of a father having to care for, and in some manner let go of, his beloved progeny. Rodriguez, in a fine sense of growth himself, really allows the actors to push much of the nuance with a simple line or look, never jamming it too far down the audience’s throat.
Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth, Hulk) also returns to screens with a force as Chiren, a woman with brains to rival her beauty. We’ve seen this sort of character before, but few could believably pull off both the sensual manipulations as well as being utterly convincing as a top-level biological and mechanical genius . . . and then add elements of loss, motherhood, and the drive to survive. Connelly, even in her brief scenes, projects so much, layering the film with that extra magic.
I could spend pages calling out each performer individually, but suffice to say with people like Mahershala Ali (recent Oscar winner for Green Book), Jackie Early Haley, and Ed Norton, even the villains are given their due. I was especially impressed with Ed Skrein’s (Deapool) turn as Zapan, twisting what might have easily been a cardboard baddie into a character of surprising depth of cunning. His spiteful attempts at revenge on Alita are impressively devious.
Relative newcomer Keean Johnson impresses as Alita’s love interest with dreams and demons of his own, and their relationship truly sets the tone of the film in terms of sweet tragedy. Rodriguez also conscripts his usual trusted gallery of thesps to round out the roles, including Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, and Eiza Gonzalez . . . and even throws in a Casper Van Dien for good measure.
With the characters, themes, and story well in hand, we only need the spectacle to pull it all together, and here again Alita does not disappoint. With Cameron’s team in place, the visuals are striking in both scope and detail. From the bumpy imperfections of Alita’s skin to an entire floating city to the frenetic mayhem of the motorball sport matches, there’s everything you’d expect from a big-budget sci-fi actioner. The motion capture is near-perfect, with a nice equilibrium reached between physically realistic fighting and movement and enhanced super-human contortion. It keeps the sequences fun and original while still basing in some semblance of reality.
As I said at the beginning, we feel satisfied with where the characters end, at least in terms of personal and thematic growth, but the door left open is wide enough to fly a spaceship through. In this day and age, and with the exorbitant budget required for such a film, nothing in guaranteed; and thus should one or more sequels fail to materialize, we’re left here with a massive amount of unanswered questions. I for one hope audiences give Alita the chance it deserves. It’s that rollicking blockbuster film with heart that we continually yearn for, and gripe about never getting. I’d argue it’s one of the best films Rodriguez has ever done, and despite some of his past missteps, it’s certainly worthy of recognition and accolade.
After 15 years of starts and stops, Alita: Battle Angel has finally rolled into theatres with a vengeance. And whether you’re fan of tentpole sci-fi or nuanced character, you’re surely not to be disappointed with this one. Get out to the theatre and have a great time . . . because I’m dying to see what happens next.