20TH CENTURY FOX (2019)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson
Alita. That’s a cool name.
Nearly thirty years ago, Yukito Kishiro released Gunnm – AKA Battle Angel Alita – a cyberpunk manga series that follows the cyborg Alita as she tries to piece together her existence after a huge battle hundreds of years earlier decimated Earth. James Cameron has had the movie adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel in his mind for nearly two decades and for the majority of that time, it has languished in development hell but, finally, armed with a huge $200m budget, Robert Rodriguez was tasked with delivering something that has so far proved elusive – a really good manga cinematic live-action adaptation.
Set hundreds of years in the future, the world now looks very different. It’s that ‘D’ word again…dystopian. When cyber doctor Dyson Ido (Waltz) stumbles across the abandoned Alita in the Iron City wastelands, he recreates her with the best intentions but when the city’s cyber-thugs start making trouble in the neighbourhood, Alita’s past and, more importantly, her mighty battle skills begin to come back to her. All the whole, above them all, the mysterious floating city of Zalem watches over everything. It all sounds fairly humdrum and standard and not entirely dissimilar to Ghost in the Shell and Elysium. Not just that, but the titular character is a live-action/motion/facial performance capture hybrid that could quite easily sink the movie before you’ve had your first munch of popcorn. Having to watch a poorly realised lead interact with human characters throughout the two-hour runtime would have been disastrous. The marvellous news, though, is that Alita herself, played by Rosa Salazar, looks incredible. The photorealism is excellent and whilst some will scream buzzwords like “Uncanny Valley!?” the end result is superb. Salazar, too, is extremely good, injecting some depth and humanity into the mix. Waltz is solid and is clearly having fun and Mahershala Ali drips with a real presence on screen – all whilst looking devilishly cool as Vector, a businessman that fixes Motorball events (the movie’s Rollerball-esque sport). Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, isn’t given a lot to do as Ido’s ex-wife and Keean Johnson is unconvincing and miscast as Hugo, the love interest of Hugo / local secret bad boy.
On that, the love angle is the weaker part of the movie. It’s not offensively bad, it’s Johnson’s performance that doesn’t sell the emotion required or allow for the chemistry to bleed through naturally. The final act, too, isn’t overly-excellent but, but, what is excellent is the action throughout. Rodriguez creates some pulsating action scenes that allows Alita to let loose and kick some serious cyborg arse – the overall CGI holding up for the vast majority and allowing for some exciting and violent set-pieces. The visuals throughout are alluring, especially when the grubby streets are off-screen – they’ve been seen time and time again now. The awesome action is far better than some of the dialogue the actors are fed – at times, it’s cliché, others corny, and the rest of the time the writing by Laeta Kalogridis is just OK. Throw in some strange plot beats that place characters in utterly inconceivable locations for convenience and you get a mixed bag in terms of narrative and plotting. The story itself, whilst standard at times, is pretty decent and the performances allow for some real emotion to seep out through the cracks.
Alita: Battle Angel suffered a fair few issues throughout pre-production and had its release date pushed back for reasons not entirely clear. Whatever the case, that’s never usually a good sign and I had prepared myself for the worst here (especially given the genre company it would be nestling alongside). Whilst there are many flaws throughout that bog the movie down, it’s visually exciting and packed with pulsating action - Alita: Battle Angel is surprisingly good.
February 8th 2019