Can carnage be beautiful? Can a deadly weapon have a heart?
Those are the big questions posed by Alita: Battle Angel, a sci-fi spectacle nearly two decades in the making from James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. And although the film struggles to offer any cogent answers to those questions, what unfolds on the screen is often so visually stunning that it’s easy to overlook the film’s narrative flaws and get lost in its surprisingly fleshed-out cyberpunk world.
Directed by Rodriguez from a script penned by Cameron and Altered Carbon creator Laeta Kalogridis, Alita: Battle Angel is based on Yukito Kishiro’s popular manga series Gunnm, which came to be known as Battle Angel Alita in its English adaptations. The film, which Cameron has been developing since the early 2000s, follows a brilliant engineer and the titular cyborg he discovers in a scrapheap and subsequently rebuilds — only for both of them to discover that she is much more than what she initially appeared to be.
Alita’s other-ness does a surprisingly good job of establishing a baseline for the film’s fantastic world.
As the titular cyborg with the brain of a human teenage girl, Parenthood and Maze Runner franchise actress Rosa Salazar provides the motion-capture performance behind the digitally created Alita, who finds herself battling the cybernetically enhanced villains of the junkyard community where she was found, Iron City. The cast is filled out by two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido, the engineer who finds the barely functioning cyborg, as well as Oscar winners Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly in villain roles. Deadpool actor Ed Skrein and young actor Keean Johnson (Spooksville) also play supporting characters, and there are also a few higher-profile, familiar faces in surprise, under-the-radar roles.
When the first images from Alita were released a year ago, audiences weren’t quite sure what to think of Salazar’s CG character with her oversized eyes and other not-quite-human features. The combination of these elements and her photorealistic look seemed destined to relegate her to the uncanny valley, where all jarring, artificial characters that try too hard to be human are relegated.
What becomes apparent early on in Alita, though, is that the depiction of the film’s eponymous cyborg was a very intentional decision by Rodriguez and Cameron, who also serves as the film’s co-producer. Instead of distracting from the story, Alita’s other-ness does a surprisingly good job of establishing a baseline for the film’s fantastic world where every other person is augmented with some sort of tech — some subtle, some impossible to ignore.
Developed over what was reported to be several years of post-production and multiple fine-tuning stages (which resulted in the film’s release date being pushed back almost a year), Alita’s phenomenal visual effects prove worth the wait. The animation, in particular, delivers the sort of nuance and emotional resonance that would have been impossible just a few years ago, and it doesn’t take long to reach a comfort zone in the CG-fueled world within which the story unfolds — with the film’s lead serving as its best ambassador.
The pace of the film remains remarkably fast throughout its two-hour runtime, with one sequence after another that feels like it could have been the biggest action scene in any other film, only to end up being just one of many expertly crafted set pieces that play out in Alita. Rodriguez and Cameron don’t shy away from having their lead character careen from one action sequence to the next, frequently upping the ante with the level of animation and spectacle each sequence demands, and there isn’t a weak scene among them.
The film as a whole ends up feeling a bit hollow, despite all of the beautiful dressing.
Keeping up that frantic pace might be another conscious decision by the film’s creative team, as it does a good job of distracting from the film’s flaws — particularly its somewhat choppy, confusing narrative.
Kishiro’s original series had the luxury of exploring some complicated themes over the course of nine volumes, with Alita’s experiences delving into the nature of humanity and mortality, the economic divide between Iron City and the floating metropolis it serves, Zalem, and the exploitation of society’s working class — whether it be humans, androids, or an amalgam of the two.
Rodriguez’s film has far less time to work with, but still seems intent on touching on all of those issues — and a few more — over the course of 124 minutes. The result is a thematically over-crowded narrative that introduces all of these problems but never seems able or committed to addressing them in any substantial way.
Given all of the captivating visuals wrapped around this serious subject matter, the film as a whole ends up feeling a bit hollow, despite all of the beautiful dressing.
Outside of Salazar’s portrayal of Alita and the performance of Waltz, who manages to fully invest in his role despite some moments that veer perilously close to outright silliness, there’s not much to be said for the rest of the cast. They all do a fine job keeping the film on the right side of sincerity, with Ali as the main standout, offering a nice reminder of how compelling a villain he can be. (He was one of the best parts of the Netflix series Luke Cage for the same reason.)
The focus in Alita: Battle Angel is clearly on the action and the visual effects that make its CG protagonist feel like one of the story’s most human characters, and virtually everything else serves those elements. Cameron has proven himself to be one of the best filmmakers in the industry when it comes to raising the bar visually with films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss, and Avatar, and although Alita doesn’t feel as substantive as those films, it delivers the same level of bar-raising spectacle.
Although it occasionally struggles to find its footing narratively, Alita: Battle Angel proves that nearly two decades of visual-effects development can indeed pay off, offering the sort of unique cinematic experience that we’ve come to expect from some of the industry’s most innovative filmmakers.
Alita: Battle Angel is in theaters now.
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