Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Written by: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeff Fahey, Jennifer Connelly, Jorge Lendeborg Jr, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Michelle Rodriguez, Rosa Salazar
After years of what if’s and maybes, we finally get to see James Cameron’s adaptation of the anime from the early 90’s, Alita: Battle Angel. Whilst Cameron has passed on directorial duties to Robert Rodriguez, his fingerprints are all over this, even showing up in the trailers, trying to tell us why we should go and watch it. And you’ll understand why when you’re halfway through. This is a difficult one to pigeon hole. Alita is as sci-fi as sci-fi can get. Set in a future hundreds of years from now, and the last remaining city on earth, Iron City, is home to its entire population. But this is being controlled from a floating city above called Zalem, seemingly in charge of everyone’s fates. At the centre of Iron City is a massive scrap pile, which is home to Zalem’s refuse, which simply falls from the imposing structure above. Here’s where the film begins, with Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido, a biomechanical surgeon, rummaging around the scrap piles trying to salvage parts for his surgery. Here he comes across the remains of a cyborg. After taking her back to his surgery, he finds a body for her and manages to bring her back to life. Alita (Rosa Salazar, giving an absolutely incredible performance in the titular role) eventually awakes, with no memory of who she is or how she got there, and we soon set out on an epic journey of self discovery.
We learn along with Alita, finding out the ins and outs of the city, why humanity is in the place it is, and that everyone down in the Iron City wants to get up to Zalem. We’re introduced to many kinds of inhabitants in Iron City, with a it of them modified with mechanical parts, making them more effective law enforcement, sports stars or things probably best left unsaid. It’s not long before the higher ups at Zalem catch on to Alita’s presence, as it turns out she’s a dab hand at martial arts, following an altercation with some unsavoury cyborgs which kick starts her defence systems and memory. From here we’re lead down many different paths as Alita tries to get to the bottom of why she’s being targeted and why it seems endorsed by the people overseeing everything. As the mystery unfolds, the film takes a darker direction, as is reflected in the films lighting. Everything is bright and optimistic as we are introduced to Alita, while she finds her feet and learns about the way of life in the Iron City. But come the third act, the atmosphere is more comparable to the likes The Crow, Blade Runner and even Stallone’s Judge Dredd.
The action set pieces are exciting and flow beautifully, and considering the film’s age rating, are surprisingly violent. To be fair, most of the fights are between cyborgs, so seeing metal people get maimed isn’t too bad, despite having human faces, but there are some human fatalities too, and one that’s surprisingly gruesome. The visual effects are for the most part very impressive, with a lot of the CGI looking photorealistic at times, although with every film of this magnitude, it’s occasionally ropey, too. The cyborg designs range from the incredible to the ridiculous, as does some of the dialogue and some moments throughout the film. Yet despite this, it absolutely fits this awe-inspiring world. No matter how far fetched or cheesy it can get, nothing feels out of place, and it’s one of the most fascinating worlds we’ve been introduced to in film in some time. There’s a good few YA elements thrown in, just to try and make it that bit more repellant, such as Alita’s relationship with local boy Hugo (played with doe eyed wonder by Keean Johnson), which at first comes across as horrifically embarrassing to watch, but as the relationship develops, you can’t help but root for the young pair.
There’s an aura to the film that feels like the classic cyberpunk/goth action thrillers from the 90’s. If you’re of a certain age, it carries the nostalgia of watching VHS tapes of movies you weren’t old enough to see, crappy sci-fi action movies which at the time were mind blowing, captures your imagination, affirming your love for the genre films such as this. But despite its descent into darkness and violence, Alita manages to maintain an innocence and hope, and everything she is doing is for the good of those she loves. Alita is one of the most endearing and magnetic characters there’s ever been in these kind of movies. Coupled with some fantastic performances from all involved (Jorge Lendeborg jr seems to be cropping up everywhere these days and is an exciting prospect), Alita: Battle Angel appears destined for cult status. Derided by mainstream media, it’s an underrated gem. As thrilling, vivid and exciting as you’d hope a 90’s anime adaptation would be.