What makes Alita so special? It’s the only real question I had going into Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Alita: Battle Angel’. My loose knowledge of this Anime/Manga adaptation had me looking towards the likes of ‘Akira’, ‘Ghost in a Shell’ and even ‘Blade Runner’ as I tried to measure expectations. The lengthy development period had me primed for a film dense with messy but ambitious ideas about humanity and identity. But Alita never reaches for such heights. And this disappointed for a second.
Then I thought about the man behind the camera and when I first heard of him. Rodriguez is the man behind ‘Desperados’, a film we seemed to hail as kids before actually seeing it because of its fabled gun action. Go through Rodriguez’s IMDB; from ‘Spy Kids’ to ‘Sin City’ and even ‘Machete’, nothing screams cerebral. Damn, I didn’t even know the man who directed ‘Planet Terror’ was behind the camera for ‘The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava girl’.
The thing is, sometimes girls just wanna have fun — and dismember cyborgs and bionic behemoths, which is exactly what Alita does. ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ moves with the confidence of film uncowed at the prospect of bombing on its $170 million budget. The filmmakers for sure expect a sequel to be greenlit for this focused origin story which even dares to tease us with a notable cameo. I shudder as I think of the unresolved cliff-hanger from a ‘90s Jet Li flick I loved as a kid; ‘The Evil Cult’.
Rosa Salazar stars as Alita, a teen android with dazzling oversized anime-inspired eyes and legendary fighting skills. Her past is shrouded in mystery, mystery tied to a great space war described as the “The Fall” which decimated earth. Alita was discovered in a scrap heap of the post-apocalyptic Iron City and brought back to life by Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido, who assumes a paternal role in the robot girls life.
The film infuses some clunky depth about Ido’s past grief and how Alita may be a weird stand-in for his deceased daughter. This peculiarity is acknowledged by Ido’s ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) who, along with mogul Vector (Mahershala Ali), has more sinister plans for Alita; plans that may win her a ticket to the upper-class utopia of Zalem hovering over the Iron City. Offering more warmth, is fellow teen, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who Alita catches feelings for.
I won’t lie, it takes about 30 minutes to actually get used to the deliberate oddities that define Alita’s character design. Somehow, Salazar’s excellent motion capture performance accentuates the weird ticks that make it uncomfortable to see Alita mesh so seamlessly with the real world, which features an assortment of more realistic looking cyborgs. There is a clear wide-eyed innocence to the way her character is initially realized bringing to mind the story of Pinocchio.
Like Pinocchio, Alita searches for that which will make her whole. In this case, it is the memory of who she was; memories Ido hopes she never regains. He puts the pieces together and realizes Alita is a 300-year-old warrior who was part of an elite fighting unit well versed in the now lost martial arts technique of Panzer Kunst. She is the only remnant of her kind and survivor of the great war.
Alita’s agency is tied to violence. It flows in her veins. She gets flashbacks of her past life when she engages in combat and is powered by a special heart built for much more than scrimmages with teens around the block. The first time she really bonds with her father figure Ido is in battle against a trio of murderous cyborgs, where she gets a clearer sense of self. Her first act of teen rebellion sees her want to become a bounty hunter to the dismay of Ido’s faux pacifism.
Naturally, we want Alita in as much perilous danger as possible; be it against bloodthirsty fiends with razor-sharp scythes or in the demented death race-rollerball marriage called Motorball. Rodriguez is in his element when tasked with immersing us in kinetic bouts of propulsive action. The film peaks with a fantastic barfight; which bundles superb action, riotous fun, humour and Salazar’s feisty performance into a perfect bouquet.
‘Alita: Battle Angel’ manages to also be rewarding visually without banging us in the head. Iron City has an alluring grit and this dystopian hipster vibe evoking Blade Runner and Dredd. The world building has imagination and never becomes a bore to experience, powered by a brand of deftly executed CGI wizardry befitting a film that was once James Cameron’s (who gets a writing credit) love child.
We only really needed a great sci-fi action for this film to near perfection. The clunky attempts to flesh out peripheral characters fall flat and birth sloppy contrivances meant to manipulate our emotions. Aside from a moment with Connelly’s Chiren, who is an adequate foil, no other character kept you from wishing they were decapitated by an Alita roundhouse kick.
Alita and her magnetic eyes are all that we need to buy into this grand setup. I know she hits the right mark because I muse on the film and retain gratitude for not just the thrills garnered from the more intense moments but also joy from watching her do the simple things; like savoring a bite of chocolate or shedding a tear. But I have to mention this one sequence where she literally offers her heart to Hugo. The filmmakers must have thought it was cute. I thought it was one of the most disturbing and psychotic things I have seen in a minute.
Alita may not have been an avatar for philosophical discourse about the human condition, but she didn’t need to be. Part of me still wants a deeper answer to what makes Alita so special. The other part is content with the answer being she just kicks ass. I hope a sequel gives her a chance to live up to my initial my expectations though.