From time to time, I’ll find myself taking in a Robert Rodriguez film, usually ending up at least semi-pleased with the result-whether it’s From Dusk Til Dawn, The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico or Sin City, I’ve always had at minimum a decent time, even as his body of work has tended to ebb & flow in terms of quality. Additionally, never once have I viewed a single entry in his Spy Kids saga, or Desperado, or Machete & its forgotten sequel-unlike close friend Quentin Tarantino, I’ve never once felt the need to see everything the man’s released up to this point.
Seeing a teaser for Alita: Battle Angel well over a year ago, however, completely piqued my interest-though presenting the appearance of something akin to Chappie, Alita seemed to have something more going on as far as effects & story were both concerned. Despite it feeling like years have passed since then, Alita has now, at long last, graced us with her presence-was it worth the wait?
It’s hard to say. Going into Alita with the lowest possible expectations seems to be the way to go-anyone anticipating the next great entry into the sci-fi genre will undoubtedly come away feeling a bit shortchanged. To begin with, the core story is nothing special-based on a Japanese manga called Gunnm, Alita is set centuries in the future years after a devastating war, where a scientist (Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of a female cyborg whom he promptly repairs & brings back to life, giving her the titular name. From there, the movie goes in a variety of directions-as Alita (Rosa Salazar) tries to remember her forgotten past and forge new relationships with those around her, her journey begins to uncover a background as some sort of soldier, one who’s highly skilled in a defunct style of martial arts but isn’t immune to the trouble that follows her as a result, as well as a love interest that become central to Alita’s story.
That’s only the beginning-there’s also an Elysium-like city, Zalem, occupied by the higher class, suspended in the air above the grimy, gritty Iron City below, the latter of which houses Alita’s action and the former which most residents strive to reach one day, as well as a roller derby-meets-Real Steel sport called Motorball that figures largely into the plot as well. Moreover, the rapport between Alita, Ido (Waltz) and a group of bounty hunters is explored, in addition to Jennifer Connelly’s Chiren, Ido’s ex-wife, who works for Vector (Mahershala Ali), a Motorball mastermind. There’s a lot to unpack in Alita’s 122 minutes, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something.
Not to be forgotten, the true star of Alita: Battle Angel is its effects-the work done to turn Salazar into the cybernetic Alita is both offputting and supremely fascinating in the best way possible. Both otherworldly and uniquely human, Alita’s look is less a detour into the Uncanny Valley and more a taste of the continued potential of visual FX. Bill Pope’s cinematography has helped to create a world that blends Blade Runner, Chappie, Robocop and, as mentioned before, Real Steel, four films I never before thought I’d lump together in one breath. Every fight sequence moves quickly, almost like the boss level in any video game, each beautifully executed, while the Motorball scenes are treated with the same amount of care-trust me, none of these moments will leave you bored. I owe this solely to Rodriguez’s direction, who balances & spaces these scenes out enough to allow Alita to breathe from start to finish. Additionally, I’ll be honest-I wasn’t completely on board with Junkie XL’s overly epic score as Alita began, but found it a perfect fit as the film concluded, another reason why seeing this film on the largest screen possible is a near-essential part of this particular viewing experience. That said, this sort of environment might prompt a run to your nearest audiologist as the credits roll-every punch, metallic crunching, gunshot and the like are amplified beyond belief. Additionally, if those recurring, giant spider-like robots didn’t remind you of Robocop’s ED-209 or that MOOSE character from Chappie, then you should at the very least see Robocop again. Chappie is still best left well enough alone.
As for the cast, Salazar fortunately is able to convey a surprising amount of emotion as Alita, someone trying to piece together the puzzle that is her former life while trying to forge a new one on the dangerous streets of Iron City, made all the more engaging when you factor in the FX covering her from head to toe. Waltz again shows his chameleonlike ability as an actor, with an understated performance that plays off Salazar well-as Alita’s guardian/ressurector Ido, his role is that of a father figure, which matches Salazar and presents a relationship between the two which works very well, with his only black mark being certain moments of the film that find him lumbering awkwardly from place to place, usually while carrying an oversized weapon prop with which he appears to consistently struggle. Keean Johnson, whom I knew nothing about going into Alita, portrays the aforementioned love interest, someone who’s perfectly average but is given little to do in terms of range much like Jennifer Connelly, who spends much of the film wearing a blank look on her face and lurking in the shadows, a recurring trait shared by numerous other characters. Ed Skrein’s Zapan not only performs this feat as well but is simply recycling his big bad from Deadpool, portraying a robotic bounty hunter which again plays to his ability to be extremely creepy. Though nothing more than Skrein’s face placed upon a CG body, Skrein’s accent and curved, menacing eyebrows have me convinced his future lies in movie villains, if nothing else. Unfortunately, Mahershala Ali was clearly given the same direction as Connelly, a shame for such an incredible actor, and Jackie Earl Haley as another cyborg is given some unusual dialogue and a bit too much CG-unlike Salazar or Skrein, the talented Haley seems unrecognizable, even down to the gruff voice he utilizes. For some reason, it just didn’t work. At least Jeff Fahey makes a brief appearance, again back in the cyberpunk world & again melded with special effects some 27 years after he seemingly kicked off the genre with 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, and there’s no denying that the robotic assistant at Bounty Hunter HQ couldn’t be more like Total Recall’s Johnny Cab if it tried.
All of this brings us to Alita’s biggest issue-the screenplay. The numerous plotlines do eventually come together, though it’s a confusing, twisty path, and the dialogue does tend to veer into ridiculous, eyerolling areas more often than not, in particular during a scene where Alita attempts to recruit a team of bounty hunters to assist her in taking down Haley’s Grewishka-the rousing speech Salazar attempts is either a failing on her part or a victim of poor writing, with my opinion focused on the latter. It’s disappointing-Alita: Battle Angel was decades in the making from writer/producer James Cameron, and while I don’t see it as a failure by any means, to see that this is what he poured a good chunk of his life into can’t help but feel like a lackluster effort. Credit should be given solely to Rodriguez’s directorial ability, though even that can’t save what the characters are saying. At the very least, Rodriguez keeps the film surging forward, and it remains beautiful to look at along the way.
There’s no denying that Alita: Battle Angel is, at the end of the day, still an enjoyable film to watch-the cast does what it can with a scattershot, unoriginal story & mediocre script, and the world surrounding them leaps off the screen in an easily digestible mix of effects and gorgeous background scenery. Yes, future sequels are setup throughout the film, though it will remain to be seen if future adventures in Iron City see the light of day once more. Until such a time, we can at least cling to the assurance that Rodriguez’s career still has life, Salazar and Waltz continue to impress, and all those involved in making Alita look the way it does have possibly the brightest future of anyone involved-if this be a taste of where the world of onscreen magic is heading, I can’t wait to see what’s next.