Battle damaged cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) is rescued from Iron city’s junkyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) who brings her back to life in the cybernetic body made for his murdered daughter, catching the eye of his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) who sees Alita as a prize prospect in the future sport of Motorball – but a much darker fate awaits the young cyborg…
Alita: Battle Angel (2019) is the film adaptation of 1990s manga Battle Angel Alita (Gunnm) by artist Yukito Kishiro, which captured the imagination of director James Cameron back in the early 2000s, keeping up so far? Well, Cameron and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis penned a huge 180 page screenplay with a billion dollar budget and it was going to be Cameron’s follow-up film to Titanic (1997). The anticipation for the live-action Battle Angel Alita film around the time of the millennium was beyond huge, a cyberpunk action film with groundbreaking special effects from the visionary director of The Terminator (1984)… Until Avatar (2009) swooped in a decade later and changed the Hollywood movie blockbuster timeline forever.
Now almost later, director Robert Rodriguez, best known for his low-budget and self-produced SpyKids (2001) and Sin City (2005) films, was given the director’s chair by Cameron after editing down Alita: Battle Angel’s overly ambitious screenplay to a tight-ish 120 pages… And unusually in the era of three hour butt-numbing action spectacles, Rodriguez’s use of brevity with the lack of humour and sequel baiting storyline are the film’s biggest flaws.
We open with Waltz’s Dr. Ido bringing Rosa Salazar’s Alita back to life 300 years after the interplanetary war between Mars and Earth known as “The Fall”. It’s a rather gently paced and touching father and daughter story that frames the first thirty minutes of the film. The young cyborg with little memory of her warrior past quickly becomes enamoured by street hustler Hugo (Keean Johnson) and together they explore the dystopian-ish landscape of Iron City filled with cyborgs, Motorball gangs and market stalls.
The floating sky city of Zalem, populated by the most wealthy and elite, casts a long dark shadow over Alita, Hugo and Iron City’s lost, forgotten and lawless citizens below. It is this spectre of salvation that shifts the film’s focus to the gladiatorial sport of Motorball (basically Rocket League meets Roller Derby) because it grants the grand champion and a lucky few entry to Zalem’s hallowed and aerial gates. But the future combat sport setup jumps wildly off the rails as Alita and Dr. Ido are ambushed by Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a hulking serial killing cyborg seemingly inspired by Phil Tippett’s robot design of Cain the villain from RoboCop 2 (1990) – Alita smacks the battery fluid out of him using “Panzer Kunst”, which essentially means Karate for robots.
There’s a fragmented feeling to the plot, a bit like an old 90s hard-drive as Alita surges forward as a bounty-hunter, motorball athlete and special forces Martian soldier. Yes, Rodriguez did keep Cameron’s favourite scenes, but ultimately they add up to a sometimes jumbled and directionless story, but it isn’t the fault of the manga source material I dare say, perhaps a slimmer page one rewrite would have served it better. And yet Rosa Salazar is perfectly cast as Alita (a totally CGI onscreen character) she brings a real warmth and tenderness to the role. Ironically she feels the most human too, literally giving her heart to Hugo in the first blooms of love, it’s a touching scene, while the rest of the cast do their very best with the mostly wooden and dour lines (sorry, but writing witty dialogue has never been a particular strong point for Cameron or Rodriguez).
Thankfully, the action sequences are crowd-pleasingly gravity defying and violent – the motorball sequences thunderously rock every inch of the screen, Alita’s balletic fighting style vs Grewishka’s flying chain knives in their bar-fight showdown is painfully visceral with Rodriguez in From Dusk til Dawn (1997) mode pushing the edges of the film’s A12 rating. It all just looks a little dated and small given the film’s $180+ million budget, maybe being shot on location at Rodriguez’s Troublemaker studios was the only way to guarantee the film ever got made… But you just know Cameron’s version of Alita: Battle Angel would have taken over Pinewood Studios six times over, gone way over budget by tens of millions of dollars and changed the course of cinema forever. Sadly, that time has past.
It’s Alita: Battle Angel-lite in a story that simply tries to do too much at once and teases a sequel which the first entry hasn’t properly setup or earned. But don’t let that put you off – Salazar is amazing in the title role and beats the thermal paste out of massive killer cyborgs!