If you want mind-blowing spectacle, and nothing else, then you’re in the right place with Alita: Battle Angel. If you’re looking for something even vaguely beneath the surface then keep on walking. Based on the 1990s Japanese manga series, Alita: Battle Angel has long been the passion project of James Cameron. Having tied himself to Pandora and the endless Avatar sequels for the foreseeable future, he handed the directorial baton to Robert Rodriguez, who has delivered an absolute visual feast. But nothing else.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place in 2563, and we’re told from the outset that this is 300-years after a huge interplanetary war known as “The Fall”. Earth is now a massive multicultural ghetto, where everyone dreams of moving to Zalem, the last of the cities in the sky. The film begins with scientist Dr Ido (Christoph Waltz) trawling the massive landfill on Earth beneath Zalem, where he finds the torso and head of female cyborg. He takes her back to his lab and gives her a new cyber-body and names her Alita.
When she awakens, Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no memory, but is soon displaying remarkable physical abilities. As she sets out to recover the secrets of her past and discover her destiny in the process, she starts playing Motorball – it’s basically Rollerball – an ultraviolent sport where the last champion standing will be granted passage to Zalem. In between all this there’s a romance with scrap dealer Hugo (Keean Johnson), a whole load of mysteries and conspiracies, and a horde of maniacal and mechanical bounty hunters keen on hunting Alita down.
From the off, the decision to fully animate Alita throws the whole film into uncanny valley. There’s no doubting the craft and genius that has gone into visualising and rendering this character, but one fully CG face surrounded by real life actors knocks the film off its axis. You end up constantly looking into her giant manga eyes for signs of life, and at her mouth to see if it is matching up with her dialogue. Perhaps this lessens on subsequent viewings, but I found it really distracting.
Let’s be real though, the visual magnificence of Alita: Battle Angel is undeniable, and the film looks stunning on Blu-ray. However, the whole enterprise is buried under too much plot, mountains of exposition, and some extremely confusing plot machinations and motivations. When you think of James Cameron projects, they are classic examples of cinematic storytelling. He’s credited as a screenwriter on Alita, but it just doesn’t have that lean and dynamic narrative you associate with Cameron. To be blunt, the script is sloppy.
Of course, this a Robert Rodriguez movie, and so there are some incredibly cool moments. The fight scenes are stunning and ultra-stylish. A bar-room brawl with a load of vicious bounty hunters is a particular highlight. Any time Alita jumps into the fray, pirouetting towards her next unlucky victim, is always a pleasure. But as slick as Rodriguez keeps the action, the film has an ADHD feel about it, needlessly flitting around and unable to settle on what the film is about.
Rosa Salazar’s motion-captured performance shows what a promising talent she is, and she massively outshines the three Oscar winners in the cast. It’s a terrific physical performance – watch as she progresses from the awkward child’s body given to her by Ido, to the powerful warrior she becomes when she finds her true body. Although the less said about the tiny waist and bigger boobs the better. I mean, yikes! You can tell this film was aimed at teenage boys. However, the line of dialogue that accompanies this to make it seem that this is how Alita wants to look will have you roaring with laughter.
Everything is on the surface with Alita: Battle Angel. Visually stunning but very little underneath. Like so many futuristic action movies, it owes a huge debt to Blade Runner, with its depiction of artificial humanity, bounty hunters, and the neon lit ruins of civilization. It just doesn’t have any of the thematic depth or existential concerns you would usually expect from this sort of material. There’s a lot of potential here, and it clearly sets up for a sequel, something Cameron has spoken openly about. However, I don’t think it did well enough at the box office for the studios to get their cheque book out.
Alita: Battle Angel is out on Digital Download on 12th July and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD from 22nd July
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Keean Johnson Director: Robert Rodriguez Writer: James Cameron & Laeta Kalogridis Released By: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Certificate: 12 Duration: 122 mins Release Date: 22nd July 2019