Alita: Battle Angel
2019, PG-13, 122 min. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Keean Johnson.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Feb. 15, 2019
For as long as anyone with an internet connection can remember, James Cameron has tried, failed, and tried again to adapt Yukito Kishiro’s manga series to the big screen. Now, nearly two decades after the project first slipped into the Hollywood rumor mill, Cameron’s film is finally seeing the light of day with action powerhouse Robert Rodriguez at the helm.
Centuries after a devastating war wiped out much of human civilization, survivors have gathered in the ruins below Zalem, the sole remaining floating city. One such survivor, Ido (Waltz), makes his living patching up the cyborg residents of the city and searching for high-tech scrap in the wasteland, which is where he discovers the core of Alita (Salazar), an advanced cybernetic warrior who cannot remember her past. As Alita reacquaints herself with the world, she discovers that the leaders of Zalem are quietly pulling the strings on the surface world; this inspires her to fight for the independence of her adopted family and defend the life of the man she loves (Johnson).
Because this is a collaboration between Cameron and Rodriguez, the film’s primary focus – and this is said with no small degree of affection – is just to move the action along. Shortly after realizing that her father figure is moonlighting as a cyborg bounty hunter, Alita enlists alongside him so she can brawl with the other hunters at their local bar. From there, Alita also signs up for the city’s lucrative Murder Ball league (a violent and mechanically enhanced evolution of Roller Derby) to pay off some of her boyfriend’s debt. The best moments of Alita are a synergy of its two creative forces, blending impressive digital environments with a science-fiction universe that speaks to hidden depths (often quite literally). No action film this earnest will be without its die-hard fans.
But since the film has doubled down on style over substance, it’s a puzzle that Cameron and company didn’t give their actors more opportunities to help bridge the gap. Put another way: How much you enjoy Alita: Battle Angel will depend on your stomach for motion capture. Salazar is definitely the right actress to build a franchise around; her performance in the Maze Runner movies proved her a more-than-capable action heroine, and she brings that same mixture of strength and vulnerability to this role. Yet because Alita has so many different character models on display, the ones that work draw considerable attention from the ones that do not, and the anime stylings are a constant drain on the film.
We never see Salazar’s performance, only the SFX team’s re-creation of her performance, and that generates a disconnect between the audience and the lead character that the film can never overcome. The trouble with computer-augmented characters like Alita is that they work best in the loud scenes, not the soft ones, and Salazar the actress – not Salazar the collection of reference points – was desperately needed to sell the film’s middling stabs at female empowerment. Alita: Battle Angel wants to frame its futuristic Pinocchio narrative around a story of teenage romance, but the end result is a bunch of pixels falling in love with the first boy they meet. Next time, stick to the parts where you punch.