Alita: Featured Pose

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL may have the most incredible set of behind the scenes players in quite some time. First, you have director Robert Rodriguez at the helm and as one-third of the screenwriting team. Next, James Cameron claims the second slot in the screenwriting team and a producer credit. Jon Landau is also Cameron’s co-producer. The effects were created by a conglomeration of major effects housing including Weta, Double Negative, and Framestore. The fighting choreographer, Steven John Brown, is a rising star in the field with 35 credits over just six years. This is a movie that brings a lot of firepower out of the gate.

Of course, big names do not always yield incredible results. The last time Rodriguez collaborated with a legend it was Frank Miller and the movie they made was the very disappointing SIN CITY follow-up A DAME TO KILL FOR. On the other hand, the last time Cameron wrote on a script he did not direct it was STRANGE DAYS, one of my favorite action films of all time and arguably the best of Kathryn Bigelow’s pre-“I’m a serious filmmaker” phase.

Alita: Dr. Ido and Alita
Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar hold hands, gazes in a scene from ALITA. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

The Idea Behind ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

An American remake of a highly respected manga, ALITA tells the story of an Earth trying to thrive after barely surviving an intergalactic skirmish. Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cyborg surgeon trying to cling to idealism, discovers a partially destroyed cyborg in one of the many piles of trash that dot the landscape. Ido has rebuilt her using a body developed for his now-deceased daughter after discovering her brain remains unharmed. When the cyborg awakens without memory but otherwise fully functional, Ido names her Alita after his aforementioned daughter.

Without a memory, Alita (Rosa Salavar) has to re-experience everything from oranges to the oppression of a police state. A teen boy Hugo (Keean Johnson) with designs on going to Zalem, the last sky city still in existence, happily begins to teach her all about their world. Highlights include bounty hunters that go by the moniker “Hunter-Warriors” and serve as the only semblance of law in Iron City, motor ball, a sort of roller derby meets demolition derby that appears to be the only sport, and, well, infatuation.

Before long, Alita gets swept up into a broader conspiracy involving the Chairman of motor ball Vector (Mahershala Ali), his partner — and Dr. Ido’s former wife — Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), an apparent crime boss with eyes everywhere Nova (an uncredited Edward Norton). In order to save her own life and the lives of others, Alita must figure out her past, her place in the new world, and fight fight fight.

Alita: Alita v Zapan
Rosa Salazar prepares a knuckle sandwich for Ed Skrein in a scene from ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Writing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

Despite loving STRANGE DAYS and several Cameron directed films, scripting has never been the man’s strong suit. I did not expect much from the screenplay therefore, even with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis collaborating. It was good to have lowered expectations. To be clear, there’s nothing egregious in the script. The truly groanworthy lines are limited. In fact, there is only one that sticks out, and it is more because it is kind of gross than because it is Cameron’s usual overwritten obvious dialogue.

Suffice to say it involves the size of Alita’s chest and someone commenting, based on it, “Guess she’s older than you thought, Doc.” Context makes it clear that it is not supposed to be leering but wow there is no way to make that line not skeevy. The bigger problem is that this movie’s structure is complicated without being complex. We have a war from 300 years earlier. There’s Alita’s memory. There’s Alita’s desire to be a hunter-warrior. We get to spend a lot of time learning and watching the motor ball. There is a rivalry with bounty hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein) that needs to be developed and resolved. We have Dr. Ido and Cherin’s backstory. Hugo has some secrets of his own. And so on. Plenty of details, lots of plot threads, not much by way of emotional weight or investment.

Alita: Bar
Keean Johnson and Rosa Salazar do some good leaning in a scene from ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Casting The Leads of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

Knowing how much credit to give to the animators versus the mo-capped actors can always be difficult. I think Rosa Salazar is a competent voice actor who injects a nice bit of playfulness into Alita at times. Especially early on in her time as a hunter-warrior, you get the feeling that she is really enjoying it. That’s an unusual note to hit with a protagonist, especially a female protagonist, but it worked. Her embrace of violence is not purely out of necessity but, in part, because she likes it is an interesting bit of work.

The rap on Christoph Waltz is that he has mostly played the same character since coming to fame in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. I cannot say I entirely agree with that, but in ALITA he for sure is working on a different set of skills. That said, Ido is not the most interesting character. I appreciate Waltz giving us a different look but I do miss some of his odd charisma here. Keean Johnson is adequate. Early on the role feels written as an exposition delivery system. Then it becomes about Hugo being conflicted about his choices, a turn we are meant to understand is about the power of love. The script and Johnson’s performance, however, do not sell it.

Alita: Vector
Mahershala Ali gets ready for another night of motor ball in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

Overall, the acting is a lot of doing the job competently if unspectacularly. It’s good to have Connelly back in a big movie again, but I just wish it was in a more well-defined role. She had one great moment of hissing fire but otherwise, there’s little to Chiren. Mahershala Ali brings coolness to Vector and that’s good because the character is one-note. Skrein’s Zapan is a decent foil. A pretty boy — for the cyborg set, at least — with thin skin, he ends up as a kind of poster boy for the toxic masculinity of the era. He is so unable to handle Alita being better than him that he has to attempt to destroy her rather than accept that he might be second best.

Alita: Motor Ball
All suited up with no one to fight, Rosa Salazar waits for motor ball to begin in a scene from ALITA. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Filming ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

One thing Rodriguez has always excelled at is maximizing the visuals. Whether it was in his indie self-financed debut EL MARIACHI or his bringing the comic well and truly to life SIN CITY, Rodriguez has always been an excellent director for making sure every penny is on-screen and looks great.

ALITA is, wonderfully, no exception. It had a visual flair for days and what seemed off-putting in the trailers — Alita’s eyes, for instance — did not once pull me out of the movie. It is strong work throughout. The film also integrates the computer creations and the “real” humans well. The various cyborgs do feel a bit odd and off but that makes perfect sense. Even in this environment, these large patchwork beings do well off, beings in a world they cannot fully belong to.

That said, the movie still feels oddly stuck back in time. Part of it is probably the film’s love of in-line skating and skateboard parks that felt very out of the ’90s. I mean the story takes place in the mid-36th century, but its hobbies seem like those of 90’s teens.

Alita: A mother-daughter meeting of sorts
Jennifer Connelly approaches Rosa Salazar in a moment from Alita. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Do I Need to See It in 3-D?

I saw ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL in 3-D and IMAX because I care about you all and wanted to review it under the best possible circumstances. I think you can safely skip the 3-D. It is not up-converted bad so if you can only go to a 3-D screening, don’t worry. However, it fails to offer an immersive experience as good 3-D does. Might as well save the cash and see it in 2-D. That said, the IMAX was quite nice. I have no idea if any multiplex will offer ALITA in IMAX but not 3-D but if it does, see it that way.

Alita: Flying Punch
Rosa Salazar evades metal tendrils on her way to punching your face. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

That’s a Wrap!

I feared and imagined ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL might turn out to be an expensive boondoggle, a gorgeous disappointment. It is not that. Nor is it a hideous failure or an incredible success. Given the hype and attention, it ends up with what I’d argue is the worst fate for a movie like this. BATTLE ANGEL is pretty mediocre. It has great effects, a couple of good performances, and tremendous action sequences. Its characters are also flat.

The script, convoluted with a little emotional payoff. I think it would be unlikely to satisfy those in search of a good movie or those who want a massive flop to mock. It is neither.

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