After 2017’s Ghost in the Shell threatened to derail the future of Hollywood anime adaptations, Alita: Battle Angel is already one of 2019’s must-see films. Based on Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita series of Japanese manga and anime about a disembodied female cyborg trying to find her place in hostile world where technology and humanity have merged. Backed with a massive budget, director Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Sin City) and screenwriter/producer James Cameron (with Laeta Kalogridis) Alita proves that not all anime adaptations are the same, and that sitting in development hell for decades can foster some pretty big expectations. And boy, did it deliver on those expectations.
The film starts with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) stumbling upon a damaged cyborg (Rosa Salazar) in a junkyard and taking her back to his place so that he can repair her, complete with a new body. He names her Alita, after his deceased daughter, and with no memories of her life before being found she learns how to interact in the chaotic and dangerous world of Iron City all over again. She soon meets a boy called Hugo (Keean Johnson) who teaches her how to have fun and introduces her to more adventurous trips outside her home than Dr. Ido would approve of. Also – there’s a killer targeting women after dark and Dr. Ido would rather have Alita not far from home during the day and inside where it’s safe at night.
It doesn’t take long before we realize there’s more to Alita than just her huge eyeballs. She has a natural instinct for dealing with danger, which coupled with her young rebelliousness comes into full display when she follows Dr. Ido on one of his suspicious night-time outings, which results in her first true life and death encounter. With her impressive warrior abilities revealed it doesn’t take long before she embarks on a mission of self discovery in order to try to recover her memories, all the while trying to help Hugo with his dreams of leaving Iron City for a better life in the floating metropolis high in the sky called Zalem.
But before these two young lovebirds can leave Iron City for a better life, they must survive encounters with a dark underworld made up of hunter-warriors (bounty hunters), cyborg assassins and a ruthless criminal businessman called Vector (Mahershala Ali) who runs the violent and dangerous sport known as Motorball. It’s one of the ways a person from Iron City can make their way to the city of Zalem – but only if you survive long enough to win.
With big budget, sci-fi action films soaked in tons of CGI, it can be very easy for filmmakers to focus more on special effects and art direction at the expense of performances. Rodriguez may be directing, but Alita is a James Cameron-produced film and if there’s one thing Cameron does well it’s presenting normal relationships in fantastical settings. This gives the actors so much more to work with, allowing them to deliver great performances which is exactly what we get with Alita: Battle Angel.
Even though Alita is CGI, she’s totally convincing as a late-teen/young woman experiencing the world for the first time. It’s adorable watching her immediate attraction to Hugo which develops into her first love. She wants to go out and do fun, exciting things despite warnings of her adopted parent. She’s rebellious, naive and everything you’d expect from a high school girl growing up in suburbia, albeit with the best combat training ever created. The “high-school-love-bird“ scenes between Rosa Salazar and Keean Johnson feel so natural you really feel the relationship developing into something stronger which makes the scenes of betrayal and loss much more impactful when they happen.
Christoph Waltz masterfully plays a caring father figure living a double life who is doing his best at trying to keep his new daughter safe in a world full of danger. We can see in his eyes the love and worry he has for Alita as he carries the burden of having lost his own daughter. His scenes with Salazar play out so wonderfully that you forget he is essentially interacting with a machine that could kill him in the blink of an eye.
Robert Rodriguez has done an amazing job at balancing sci-fi action with meaningful storytelling. Even though Alita: Battle Angel is set in a dystopian, futuristic cyberpunk world where extreme technology is integrated into everyday life, it’s handled in such a way as that it’s normal, instead of the science being a spectacle. What’s important are the characters, not the technology, even though the latter is very important to the story. This film is essentially a story about a girl who falls in love with a boy, and a man getting another chance at being a father and the primary focus of the film never strays far from that.
Yes there’s the impressive, amnesia warrior element in there, however this film focuses on the drives that make people human. Rodriguez tells this story of basic human need, all the while blending incredible effects and blowing us away with over-the-top fight sequences demonstrating Alita’s mastery of combat. When she’s done killing the robotic adversary in front of her, we’re reminded afterwards she is a young woman full of emotions and needs like everybody else. Just a little more lethal.
The only gripe I have with this movie is the ending. The story ends at what I consider to be a strange point – so strange that it felt very abrupt when it happened. This film is clearly a setup for more sequels, however when the credits rolled I had a sense that I watched an incomplete film, like there needed to be another 15-20 minutes to properly finish up everything we had just experienced. It didn’t feel right. Then again, it’s based on a long-running manga/anime series, so there’s plenty more story to tell if they choose to do so.
Despite the ending, Alita: Battle Angel is an incredibly entertaining spectacle that left me wanting more, and I sincerely hope there are sequels coming. This isn’t your typical sci-fi story, and despite the overwhelming technological backdrop, it manages to focus on what it means to be human when all hope seems lost. Those wanting impressive special effects, amazing art direction, solid acting and energetic fight scenes in a cyberpunk world need to see this on the biggest screen possible.