Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
by Jason Koenigsberg
James Cameron teams up with Robert Rodriguez for a futuristic sci-fi spectacle with Alita: Battle Angel and the result does not have one single original thought, but it still delivers on the visual and emotional levels. The movie opens up with the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare that cleverly morphs into the same logo saying 26th Century before letting the audience know it is the year 2563 specifically. The first shot is a dirty and dusty cityscape reminiscent of many other sci-fi films. We learn that this world is struggling after ‘The Fall’ and then see Christoph Waltz scavenging a junkyard for android parts. He is a doctor of sorts, more like an engineer who uses these parts to repair half-human half-robot cyborgs that live in this overpopulated, overpolluted, post-war dystopian metropolis.
A lot of Alita: Battle Angel feels like a movie cobbled out of other ideas from science fiction movies yet despite all that it still works very effectively as it’s own thoroughly entertaining picture. Right away when Alita first wakes up some great detailed special effects are on display with her mechanical body and movements. Instantly the viewer learns that our heroine has a short temper and a knack for violence, self-defense, and revenge as she tries a futuristic sport called Motorball, most likely a rip-off of the future sport Rollerball (1975). But all of the scenes involving this game and everything else in Alita: Battle Angel is intense, action-packed and keeps building up towards something even bigger than the previous effects sequences.
Most of Alita: Battle Angel feels like James Cameron-light. He is too busy directing/creating new worlds in his Avatar universe to direct anything else but this movie feels straight out of his wheelhouse more than it does Robert Rodriguez who has not made a visionary cinematic experience since his groundbreaking Sin City (2005). But there is a reason for that and it involved disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein who sabotaged Robert Rodriguez’s career for years because of his relationship with Rose McGowan who was one of the most vocal victims of Weinstein. James Cameron’s films usually feature a strong female protagonist like Ripley in Aliens (1986) or Sarah Connor from the Terminator series. Alita could fit right in and be one of their mechanically enhanced daughters. The only part of Alita: Battle Angel that really felt like a Robert Rodriguez film was a bar scene where Alita fights some other cyborg bounty hunters. James Cameron has long hated Harvey Weinstein ever since he found out about how he destroyed Guillermo del Toro’s film Mimic (1997) and it is poetic that he hired Rodriguez for a $200 million budgeted action flick about a strong woman fighting against mostly men and taking down a corrupt male-dominated system.
The screenplay throws in a few metaphors about the class struggle of the future where everyone is trying to get higher up in society, in this film literally the characters want to climb up into the city that floats directly above them where the upper-class lives, and there are levels below the surface that even lower societies dwell. Christoph Waltz does a serviceable job as Alita’s father figure and it was nice to see Jennifer Connelly in a major tentpole picture again. Rosa Salazar illustrates real human emotion even though she is under a lot of CGI from a motion-capture performance and her eyes are intentionally animated bigger than normal to resemble the Manga comic Alita: Battle Angel is based on. Plus Mahershala Ali continues his hot streak for the ages showing range as a villain in this film right as he is on the cusp of winning his second Oscar in three years for Green Book and anchoring HBO’s third season of True Detective. Alita: Battle Angel is completely unoriginal, but the stunning cinematography, superb special effects, and heartfelt performances make it well worth seeing on the biggest screen possible.