There are few movies with as long and as wild a development cycle as Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel that manage to be as good and compelling as this one when they hit the screen. To put it plainly, this movie has been in development hell since the original Finding Nemo hit screens, a pet project of uber-director/producer James Cameron after he was introduced to Yukito Kishiro’s manga of the same name (by Guillermo Del Toro of all people!). His take on the project ultimately got sidetracked once Avatar went into pre-production, and it seemed, for a long while, that the project would simply remain in development hell for the long-term. But that all changed in 2016, when Rodriguez was hired to direct the film — a second chance for the longtime action director after a long string of financial and critical disasters — under Cameron’s intense supervision as executive producer. To put it straight, this is easily Rodriguez’s best film in well over a decade (perhaps since Sin City), and it may very well be the best Cameron-related work of the century so far. The film still has its issues — some more glaring than others — but overall, it’s a feast for the eyes worth your time and attention.
Alita takes place in the 26th century where, following a great world war some 300 years earlier, all but one of the Earth’s massive floating cities has fallen. That megalopolis, Zalem, managed to survive the war (mostly) intact, and became a haven for the super-wealthy and ethically-challenged. The poor, who trek from all over the world in order to live in the last civilization, spend their days on the ruined ground of Iron City below the giant platforms of the sky-city, working for subsistence wages serving the rich in the hopes that they’ll one day be selected to go and live in paradise alongside the monied. Some think their hopes lie in the black market robotics trade — given that nearly everyone is a cyborg in this world, there’s definitely a thriving less-than-scurrilous crowd looking for stolen implants — and others hope that, perhaps, their skills at a legalized technological bloodsport called Motorball can let them ascend to Zalem as well. Sound familiar?
Anyways, a doctor and bounty hunter by the name of Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a still-living cyborg head and torso — essentially a teenage girl’s living brain preserved in a robot body) while he’s out scavenging for parts in one of Zalem’s giant trash-heaps, and takes it home to repair. He manages to fix up the cyborg, and dubs her “Alita,” a name of plot-related significance to him. Alita (Rosa Salazar) is an amnesiac who remembers very little about her previous life, and instantly begins to live her second life to the fullest — she find her favorite foods (chocolate), discovers that she likes playing sports, and begins to fall in love with a rough-and-tumble boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) — but one night, she stumbles upon Ido attempting to stop a group of psychopathic cyborg murders from killing more women, and something in her clicks. She instantly lays the smackdown on these fools, sparing the last one, who reports back to Vector (Mahershala Ali, in a role filmed before he won his Oscar) and his assistant Chiren (Jennifer Connelly). The two fix Motorball races, and serve a mysterious boss called Nova, who lives above in Zalem, and wants Alita for his own purposes, so the gang attempts to hunt her down. She, however, won’t go down without a fight.
There’s a lot more than you might expect about this that works. The action in this film is utterly incredible, especially when Rodriguez and Cameron put us on the Motorball track — a spectacle of cinematic carnage nearly on par with what Spielberg brought us last year in Ready Player One (though I admire the master’s course structure just a little bit more that I do here). It’s the Rollerball sequel that we’ve always deserved, being a kind of Twisted Metal take on a basketball-themed roller derby spin-off, and the movie gets a shot of adrenaline delivered straight to the chest whenever we’re allowed on the field. There are other sequences, as well, that are worth the price of admission, among those are a few that actually manage to emulate the style of its source material, such as Alita’s subterranean slo-mo fight with a giant brute played by Jackie Earle Haley (which makes sense, given that the character was plucked straight from the short-lived anime based on the manga). She’s quick, nimble and athletic in her violence, and her form owes a debt to the slow-mo cinema of the ‘90s from people like John Woo and the Wachowski siblings. Her movements are beautiful and often astonishing, and it’s incredibly compelling to watch her kick a boat-load of ass.
As far as aesthetics go, the world of Iron City is excellently rendered, with its odd one-man vehicles and modified humans littering the brown junk-city landscape, amongst all the retro-tech vibes. For instance, I always love it when communicators are less advanced in far-flung futures than the average smart phone is now, and that’s definitely a way to describe Alita’s approach to non-cyborg tech. The cyborgs themselves are impeccably rendered, including Alita herself from the neck down, her first ivory-looking cyborg body looking etched with writing and profoundly small yet meaningful details. The costuming is, for the most part, exquisite, and compliments the film’s best performance, given by Ali, who knows what kind of goofy thrill-ride he’s a part of, given that he’s dressed like an extra from Enter the Matrix (it’s especially funny once you also realize who he’s impersonating for a chunk of the film when he’s possessed, and how accurate it is). It is a visual delight, above all else, and it’s well worth the price of a large-format ticket to immerse yourself even further into the world. There’s also a swell conflict between Alita and her beau that’s sure to inspire solid writing from critics other than myself, and it makes the finale interesting even when the film is actively working against itself.
Now, on to the things that are less successful. I wish I could be as complimentary about Alita’s look from the neck up, but her CGI-rendered face, with its garish oversized anime-style eyes, is an effect that abhors a close-up. The level of detail that Rodriguez and company have put into making her look “realistic” while paying homage to her origins is admirable, but it just gets uncomfortable to look at over time, falling well into the so-called uncanny valley that’s doomed many a Robert Zemeckis project and, pre-Marvel, ensured that de-aged actors would always look rubbery and weird. To be fair, a lot of this is smoothed over by the fact that I’m not as familiar with Salazar’s face as I am with other members of the ensemble, and I just assumed that her on-screen visage was entirely a CGI creation. But once Michelle Rodriguez showed up for a brief flashback as a cyborg of a similar vintage of Alita’s, I had a point of comparison to a recognizable face, and the effect just seemed pointlessly complicated and ugly no matter how essential the tribute may be to the film’s aesthetic. It makes our protagonist needlessly hard to watch, and undermines all of the excellent effects work occurring around her in the world. That said, she’s not nearly as robotic as Waltz or Connelly, who are sleepwalking through this film.
But all of that is small potatoes compared to the narrative horseshit that Rodriguez and Cameron pull in the film’s last third, which nearly sinks the entire film right as you’re about to walk out into the sunshine. This is a movie without a substantial third act or a meaningful conclusion, in which the director and his executive producer’s hubristic hopes for this to be the beginning of a franchise prevent it from being narratively satisfying and, worse, allows the duo to skip over an entire movie’s worth of exciting storytelling in the process. It wrecks the film’s love story, stamps all over our main character’s relationships as we’ve come to see them established, and leaves us on a weak pseudo-cliffhanger. That scene is capped off with an egregiously silly cameo from an unexpected actor, teasing their involvement as the series’ primary villain like an evil Samuel L. Jackson in Iron Man, or, more accurately, Jon Hamm in the A-Team reboot. I’m sure someone will claim that this is a tribute to the perpetual second-acts found within manga and comic books, but it’s different when you can expect another installment in a month’s time, rather than to hope for a sequel-based conclusion which, let’s be honest here, is far from a certainty at this point.
Even then, that’s not enough to stop Alita: Battle Angel from being a worthwhile and intriguing endeavor, one that eschews the “interesting failure” label in my mind for something like “deeply flawed success.” As much as I wish as this had a less-heavy western influence (given that Hollywood’s output is more globally-oriented than ever, you have to wonder why we can’t just get anime adaptations that attempt to capture the style of their source material rather than just the aesthetic), that Alita’s face weren’t such a distracting effect and that the movie could have… you know, ended, it’s still an ultimately thrilling thing to witness, and I hope Rodriguez and Cameron get their sequel, all things considered. The world of Iron City is one that I would gladly return to, especially if it means that we’d be able to make another stop at the Motorball track.