Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein.
The Plot: Iron City, the 26th Century. A war that happened centuries ago has split the world into the haves and the have-nots. People below in the battle-worn city look up to a better life in the city above. Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) is an inventor who moonlights as a bounty hunter. He finds the upper body of cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) and reboots her with a full body inspired by his late daughter. Alita is a cyborg girl with a history and her memories are slowly coming back to her. It appears that she was an advanced cyborg, a battle angel who holds the key to building a better world. Alita trains up and discovers her true identity, bringing her into conflict with Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his team of vicious cyborg bounty hunters including Zapan (Ed Skrein). Is she really a battle angel… or the angel of death?
The Verdict: Originally scheduled for a Christmas release, Alita: Battle Angel was moved to February. It’s a more appropriate release window, as it’s what you might call a typical February blockbuster. The weather is cold outside, but it’s lukewarm in the cinema. Alita: Battle Angel is a colourful sci-fi action adventure with huge scope and ambition, but it doesn’t quite catch fire in the way one would hope for. It’s based on the manga graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, adapted here by the crazy busy James Cameron (currently shooting four Avatar sequels simultaneously) and Terminator Genisys screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis. Robert Rodriguez directs, making a rare outing into more direct blockbuster territory. The result is a mishmash of styles – part Terminator, part live action manga with a state-of-the-art Hollywood sheen, part journey of self-discovery for a young cyborg girl.
The sum of those parts don’t quite add up though. The Elysium-style better world that Alita dreams of is only hinted at from afar, possibly left undeveloped for now for a proposed sequel. How do we know it’s a better world if we’re not allowed to see it properly? The main villain of the piece, Vector, is somewhat one-note and his motivations remain in the dark for most of the film. Ali seems to have switched on his own cyborg mode, as his only expression is set at ‘intense with sunglasses on’. Was he watching The Matrix for research? At least Skrein has more fun with his bad boy cyborg, gleefully slicing up opponents with his deadly blades. That brings us to Alita herself, a combination of skilful performance capture from Salazar and the CGI boffins at Weta Digital. Despite the fact that other actors like Skrein have had their heads digitally placed on animated cyborg bodies, Salazar is fully animated.
The film is riding on whether audiences will buy into the performance capture and accept a digitally created humanoid cyborg character with an actor behind it. Strange as it may seem initially to the eyes, the performance capture actually works and becomes the film’s strongest asset. Creating digital human characters has come a long way since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in 2001. Skin, hair and expressions look incredibly lifelike, to the point where it can be hard to tell if the character is animated or real in particular shots. Salazar pokes through the animation to drive home her character, ensuring that the story remains relevant in her journey to discover her true identity. Rodriguez adds some visual flair to his world-building throughout, with thrilling, metal-crunching, Rollerball-style game sequences. Waltz adds some welcome warmth as well, in a fatherly role.
Alita: Battle Angel isn’t the most obvious Rodriguez film. It doesn’t come with his trademark flourishes like over-the-top violence, throwaway humour and cameos from his repertory group of actors. It’s a straight studio picture, which allows him to play in a much bigger toy box. The toys on display are certainly eye-catching, allowing you to soak your retinas in this world for two hours while not being too distracted by its flaws. Despite those flaws, Alita: Battle Angel is hot-wired to be an entertaining and enjoyable enough ride which moves along at a zippy pace. While the story doesn’t quite ignite into something remarkable, it does have its moments and should hopefully prompt a sequel to build up this story further.