Movie review: Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron create eye-popping but derivative sci-fi

Alita: Battle Angel (Alita: Bojový Anděl)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
With Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson

The future continues to look bleak with Alita: Battle Angel, the latest dystopian sci-fi film.

The live-action film combines the talents of director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron, two of the biggest names in action and sci-fi.

The story is inspired by the Japanese manga Gunnm, which has already been adapted into two anime episodes.

The look of the Alita: Battle Angel is coherent, with a rundown world on the earth's surface populated by struggling people and a wide array of half-human-half robot cyborgs. Both Rodriguez and Cameron have a strong visual sense, and that shows throughout the film.

The action takes place in a vast city filled with collapsing structures, and a huge garbage dump of refuse dropped from Zalem, an orbiting city in the sky. The earth settlement has a Latin American feel, with a large Spanish-style cathedral and signs in English and Spanish.

The main thrust of the plot hinges on a game called motorball, which for all intents and purposes is the same game in the 1975 film Rollerball, and its 2018 remake. The resemblance is so strong, it is surprising that the older films are not given thanks as inspiration in the Alita's credits.

The title character, Alita (played by Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg in the form of a teen woman. Scavenging surgeon Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds part of her torso in a refuse dump, and builds her back together. Ido is an idealist who helps to keep the robotic parts on the city's poor people working.

Alita herself is some form of long-lost technology from before a catastrophic war some 300 years ago.

Alita bears only a passing resemblance to actress Rosa Salazar. Extensive CGI was employed to make her eyes bigger and other adjustments so she more closely resembles an anime character. Her fast movements are also all CGI. Salazar, or at least the CGI version of her, still shows substantial emotional growth in the character from wide-eyed (literally) amazement when she is brought back to life, to a growing confidence as she learns her powers.

Much of Alita: Battle Angel focuses on a group of street kids led by Hugo (Keean Johnson), with Tanji (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Koyomi (Lana Condor), and their interactions with Alita.

Rodriguez has a lot of experience with young characters from his four Spy Kids films, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl and perhaps even The Faculty. He treats the young actors with respect, and doesn't derail the film with “kid stuff.”

Christoph Waltz gives a typical laid back performance, but also reveals hidden sides. Jennifer Connelly's role is a bit stereotypical as a sort of femme fatale, working for the powers that keep people oppressed. She is capable of more depth, but it wasn't in the script. Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for Moonlight, creates a smooth villain.

The story by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island), though, feels extremely derivative, and this might be because the Japanese manga itself was a mish-mash of other sources.

Aside from Rollerball, there are hints of the 2011 film Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman. The idea of poor people in a separate city underneath the rich goes back to Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, and has been done many times since including 2013's Elysium. A female robot combining human and technological elements was also in Metropolis.

A warrior coming out of dumped garbage on a dystopian planet figures into the 1998 sci-fi actioner Soldier, starring Kurt Russell. A society living off of remnants of old technology that can't be replicated was in the recent Mortal Engines.

But if you accept the story as a pastiche of popular dystopian themes all patched together into something new, it can be engrossing, if a a bit unsurprising.

The film, which runs just over two hours, ends quite abruptly, pushing a lot of plot resolution off onto a planned sequel.

With cinema screens currently filled with Oscar hopefuls, Alita: Battle Angel is the best among the action films available.

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