“Alita: Battle Angel,” the longtime pet project of producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez, makes its screen debut as a visually stunning dystopian epic that will stay with you long after you leave the theater. Make no mistake, we’ve all been hit over the head with abundant uses of CGI animation, both good and bad. What sets “Alita” apart is the painstaking detail put into the effects, and a title character who is exquisitely rendered from state-of-the-art motion-capture technology employed on actress Rosa Salazar. Based on a popular Manga character by Yukito Kishiro, “Alita” continues Cameron’s proclivity for building films around strong, groundbreaking female characters throughout his 40-year film career.
Our film takes place in the 23rd century after “The Fall.” Iron City physician Dr. Ido (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz), coming off the devastating loss of his daughter, finds the head and upper torso of an android in a scrapyard, discarded from the advanced civilization above his head, the sky city of Zalem. He wastes no time in attaching his daughter’s cyborg body and name onto the newly christened Alita (Rosa Salazar), who awakens to find a remarkable new world filled with delicious oranges…and chocolate…and murderous cyborgs employed by the leader of Iron City, the villainous Vector (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali)!
Like an amnesiac, Alita has no memory of who she was, only knowing that she originated on Zalem. Yet it doesn’t take long for Alita to figure out what skills she possesses. During a harmless street version of Motorball, the city’s high-stakes sports/entertainment spectacle, it becomes apparent that Alita was an elite fighter, a notion which is solidified when she defeats a group of cybernetic killers sent by Vector.
Alita soon joins the ranks of Hunter-Warriors, the protectors of Iron City, and begins to piece more details together concerning her previous life. She becomes a threat to Vector’s stronghold on the populace and an android-of-interest to his assistant, Dr. Chiren (Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly), who is also the mother of Alita’s namesake.
As Alita undergoes the metamorphosis from castoff to warrior to Motorball star (!), one thing remains consistent — she must wage a continual fight against the myriad of forces that are set to destroy her and discover the truths about the symbiotic relationship between Zalem and Iron City.
The film co-stars Ed Skrein (“Deadpool”) as Alita’s jealous fellow Hunter-Warrior Zapan and Jackie Earle Haley as her main physical adversary — the hulking Grewishka. The strong supporting cast, boasting no less than three Oscar-winners, is only somewhat weakened by an ever-so-slightly green performance by newcomer Keean Johnson in the pivotal character of Hugo — Alita’s friend and love interest, who also happens to deal in stolen, or “chopped”, cyborg body parts.
“Alita: Battle Angel” springs to life onscreen as a viable alternative to the ever-popular American comic book film continuum and makes the point that you don’t have to be connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or DC Extended Universe to enthrall fans who are looking for the next superhero. The film also manages to seamlessly bridge the gap between live action and animation by presenting their animation as indistinguishable from the actors. I can honestly say that this is the first and only instance I practically forgot that I was watching a CG character, as Alita’s facial movement is that natural. It’s clear why James Cameron is so respected. As with “The Terminator,” “Titanic,” “Aliens,” and “Avatar,” nearly everything the man creates achieves greatness.
Because of this, director Robert Rodriguez may unfortunately be overshadowed. This is to be expected when working under an auteur like James Cameron. However, Rodriguez was hand-picked by Cameron to aid him in his vision, and his unmistakable stamp upon this film is present from beginning to end. Here, Iron City is a seedy world where Hunter-Warriors stalk cyborgs throughout the streets, culminating in at least one murder that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s Giallo — except for the cyborg! Fans will note this isn’t the first time that Rodriguez has successfully brought a comic book to life. His two-film “Sin City” series, based on adult-oriented graphic novels by Frank Miller, allowed Rodriguez free rein to recreate that dark and violent world for fans. In this film, the director is forced to work within a PG-13 rating, but in no way does it confine his craft.
I viewed this state-of-the-art motion picture in Dolby Vision 3D, and I would recommend that all viewers do likewise, as this is the format the filmmakers intended. As we happen to be moviegoers in the days of abundant theater subscription programs, it is undoubtedly cheaper or more cost-effective than ever before to do so.
A film such as “Alita: Battle Angel” perhaps won’t be as impressive on a 2D screen, due to the plethora of minuscule
details and creative design that has gone into a project nearly 20 years in the making. Nevertheless, the resulting collaboration between two of the most stylish directors in the business takes its place as a landmark achievement in both science fiction filmmaking and comic book adaptations.