When it comes to the creators of Alita: Battle Angel, long-running science fiction and action fans are in very good hands. The film is produced by James Cameron (and for a while set to direct) and directed by Robert Rodriguez both of which have proven their visual storytelling chops. (Rodriguez and the visually arresting Sin City and Cameron with pretty much his entire career). Without a doubt Alita: Battle Angel is a visual feat be it the human heads bobbling on giant cyborg bodies, the incredible textured face of Alita never failing to look real, or the action which is sped up and so realistic it’s hard to believe it was filmed without computer assistance. Regardless of fans who may not like the story, or just aren’t into the sci-fi aspect, you have to respect how good this film looks.
The story isn’t too bad either. Having read the entire main Battle Angel Alita series I can say it improves on the original. Check out my reviews of past installments here: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, and Holy Night & Other Stories. The original manga was created in an episodic format so a cohesive story isn’t quite what you get. Instead, it’s chapters of good ideas and great action. The film takes those good ideas and great action translating those perfectly. On top of that, they’ve taken a somewhat complex and at times convoluted original story and made it enjoyable and understandable for a two hour run time. Without a doubt, it ends in a way that may make some hope for something more, but it does serve as a good first chapter especially if you know where this story could go from here. Who is to say if there will be a sequel, but thankfully the film naturally plugs in aspects that will lead to another film rather than leaning on those aspects. You won’t feel cheated as if we have to get a sequel for another film, but it tips its cap at you and makes you want more.
I don’t think they could have cast a better Dr. Dyson Ido than with Christoph Waltz. He has a warmth that’s fatherly, but also protective. You’ll believe he’s the scientist who can rebuild a brain in a shell and also do a little fighting too. I understand Alita, played by Rosa Salazar was mostly motion capture, but man does she do a great job. She imbues Alita with a sense of joy of being alive for the first time (since she lost her memories) and also falling in love. When she cries, you feel it deep in her heart from her gasps. You’ll believe every scene she’s in.
There’s no bad acting in this film. That goes for Jennifer Connelly who pulls off the is-she-bad or isn’t she in Chiren. Mahershala Ali does a good job as a mob boss type and possibly has the biggest laugh in the ending playing Vector. Keean Johnson is one of the newer actors I’m unfamiliar with and he plays a solid boyfriend in Hugo who has a bad side too.
The action in this film is lightning fast which is exciting because they don’t edit it to almost incomprehensible hand movements. The bad guys doing a lot of the fighting are Ed Skrein as Zapan and Jackie Earle Haley as Grewishka. Both look believable in their impossible cyborg bodies. The action, among other things, is done so well I can’t believe James Cameron could have pulled this off a decade ago when he was working to be the director on this project.
An element many may not expect is how violent the film can get. Arms are ripped off, heads are thrown into meat grinders, and the camera does not cut away. I suppose since they are cyborgs you can get away with a PG-13, but there were some gruesome moments that caught me off guard. It reminded me of Rodriguez’s Grindhouse film Planet Terror. If you’re into that sort of thing I can imagine you won’t be disappointed even if there isn’t blood gesiers gushing.
It isn’t a perfect film by any means either. I think it accomplishes almost everything it set out to do and really does deserve merit for pulling off some very tricky things visually and story-wise. That said, the film bottoms out about 15 minutes before it ends and there are moments you’ll wonder how long this film goes on for. It loses your interest because it bounces around so many plot elements trying to stuff in possibly two movies worth of content. If not for the great acting by Salazar I’d wager the romantic angle is quite weak. The characters bond by being around each other, but not really sharing in any moments.
Motivations are a bit suspect too. Alita wants to know more about her past as would anyone, but to what end? Chiren wants to move on from the loss of her daughter, but why help a madman and in the end have a convenient change of heart? Hugo wants to get to Zalem, the mythical city in the sky, but he’s too dumb to realize that’ll never happen. Speaking of which, this film does seem to hold back a bit never capturing what Zalem really is or why we should care. I suspect they wanted to save something for sequels, but it may have worked better as a one-off film with more about that here.
Overall I was blown away by how well this film captured the manga and then some. I was shocked at times by not only the visuals working so well but how it made me feel during action scenes. This movie moved me like The Matrix in that I couldn’t believe my eyes and I was all in with every punch. Films don’t often do this and I imagine even if this film fails there will be an audience that will love it. At the same time though it elicits a similar reaction as Elysium did in that it visually was amazing, but doesn’t quite pull it all off. It has raised the bar visually in ways I suspect a younger audience will appreciate even more.