Alita: Battle Angel is a beautifully staged ride
It breaks my heart a little to know that Alita: Battle Angel will not likely be a widely loved movie. It will not likely see a huge box office return, and as a result, the sequel that it so heavily baits, and I so desperately want, will never see the light of day. But such is the risk of large scale, high-concept science fiction. Without an enthusiastic built-in fan base, there’s not much to sell the movie on outside of name recognition, and even that isn’t of the highest calibre — “directed by Robert Rodriguez” and “co-written by James Cameron” are two phrases that, while exciting, aren’t the draw they once were. But maybe I’m wrong. Hopefully I am wrong. Because as far as spectacle driven blockbusters go, Alita: Battle Angel is — and I use this term in the most literal sense — AWESOME.
This isn’t to say that there’s no preexisting fan base, as plenty of folks have read the source manga Gunnm, but they comprise a small minority of filmgoers. For most of us, this is our first exposure to the material, and the film knows this, for better or for worse. On the “for worse” side, this means that there is a TON of exposition to plow through at the outset. On the “for better” side, the exposition is handled pretty well considering the scope of the story. Taking pains to explain the world of Alita to the audience is a necessary evil in exhibiting something so thoroughly designed. And that design is perhaps what has stuck with me most. But before we get into that, I’ll make an attempt to give you an abridged version of the plot.
The year is 2563. Earth has been devastated by an unspecific war colloquially referred to as “The Fall.” The people of Iron City live out their days in the shadow of Zalem, a hovering city to which access is limited to the elitist of the elite. Folks dream of one day being worthy enough to step inside its walls, but for most it’s just a pipe dream fueled by the heaps of mysterious junk jettisoned down to earth from inside. Few humans living in Iron City are completely flesh and blood. Most have at least a robotic arm or leg, and some are almost entirely machine, but with a human brain at the helm.
Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is the man who everyone goes to see for repairs. The reason he’s so good is that he’s a bit of a hobbyist about his craft. One day while trash picking for spare parts, Ido stumbles across the head and upper torso of Alita (Rosa Salazar). She has a human brain, an extremely powerful core, and no memory of who/what she is. Once Ido gives her a functioning body, it becomes clear that whatever her background may be, she is both extremely important, and extremely powerful.
I won’t risk spoiling anything by going further, but I’m sure you can assume the basics. It’s a sci-fi coming of age tale that doubles as an origin story for a new action hero. And what a hero she is! Alita has all of the skills required to make for an eye-popping adventure, and once she obtains a fully weaponized body, everything gets cranked up to eleven. Despite being a largely motion captured performance, Salazar imbues Alita with a childlike wonder. Her digitally widened eyes are fueled by the curiosity of someone popping into existence with a blank slate (a device which certainly helps with the exposition dumps). We learn alongside her, and it makes her quite easy to love.
The action setpieces are phenomenal, a rarity nowadays in an era where hyperstylized editing masks under-designed sequences. Even in IMAX 3D, a format which often adds to the murkiness of such visuals, the action looks wonderful. In fact, I’d recommend spending the money on a premium format. Rodriquez knows exactly where the viewer’s eye should land and how to guide it there. Motorball, a beloved sport in Iron City (think roller derby with weapons and robots), is prominently featured throughout the movie, and Rodriguez finds a million different ways to shoot it with clarity, tension, and a command of scene geography that comic book cinema routinely fails to capture. Since it’s set inside such a densely detailed world, there’s often an excessive amount of information in the frame, but the film is never weighed down by it. I think “nimble” is the word to describe the camera work.
Iron City has a look simultaneously reminiscent of Blade Runner, Indiana Jones, and Casablanca. It does NOT have that green screen feel that makes everything seem pretend. It feels like a world that existed long before the movie started and will exist long after it ends. It’s largely why I’m so interested in a sequel. I want to play in this world again! It’s fun to be in and it lends itself to some very imaginative staging, even in scenes with no action at all. The people feel real, the communities feel real. The mixture of digital imagery and live-cation photography is as seamless as it has ever been. This doesn’t feel like an animated move - a feat which few modern sci-fi actioners can tout. And a sequel could pull the lens back further to reveal so much more. I often reference the disparity between the Star Wars universe and Avatar’s Pandora. The former exhibits tremendous imagination and invites us to dream further within it. The latter puts a cap on things — it’s James Cameron’s world and we are but spectators. Alita: Battle Angel got my neurons firing in a big way, so much so that I’m more than willing to forgive its wonkier elements (the forced romance between Alita and a young street tough comes to mind).
Rounding out the cast we have Jennifer Connelly, as a woman with emotional ties to both Ido and Alita; Mahershala Ali as a criminal kingpin with nefarious connections to the flying city of Zalem; Ed Skrein as an almost fully robotic bounty hunter with a (computer?) chip on his shoulder. All are chewing scenery as hard as they can. All are having the best time. It’s hard not to have a good time along with them.
You may or may not be as engaged with the material as I found myself, but I believe that no matter how you feel about it, you’ll be glad you spent the time on it.
If you do go see it, let me know, and I will personally thank you for paving the way for another story to be told in this exciting new world.
Alita: Battle Angel opens in Philly theaters today.