Alita: Battle Angel Review
Alita: Battle Angel (2019) | Dir. Robert Rodriguez | Cast: Eiza González, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Michelle Rodriguez | Writers: James Cameron (screenplay by), Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay by), Robert Rodriguez (screenplay by), Yukito Kishiro (based on the graphic novel series "Gunnm" by)
Step aside, Aquaman; the so-bad-it’s-good arena finds a new reigning champion in this bedazzling film from director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer James Cameron. A bizarre cybernetic fusion of Pinocchio and Ghost in the Shell, this adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s graphic novel series begins with a kindly doctor (Christoph Waltz) discovering the remains of a robot (Rosa Salazar) among the dystopian junkyards of 2563.
Doctor Ido takes in and repairs the decrepit husk, who he names after his lost daughter. Alita - a pint-sized Dua Lipa lookalike with enormous, manga-style eyes - begins exploring this strange and terrifying world; uncovering her past, falling in love and doing battle along the way. She’s imbued with hyperkinetic fighting abilities that attract the attention of Mahershala Ali’s sinister Vector, a suspiciously-motivated overlord who dresses (and emotes) like an extra from The Matrix.
It’s fair to say this adventure has the odds stacked against it from the start. Rodriguez’s post-Sin City efforts have proved less than spectacular, and live-action anime adaptations still attract the stigma that (rightly) hounded 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. Throw in continued production delays and James Cameron’s growing status as an industry punchline with each passing year since Avatar, and you have all the ingredients for a colossal disaster.
And yet, despite a plot as predictable as the tides, a quite impressively uninvolving love interest and more CGI than is healthy for anyone; this ludicrous, long-gestating passion is an underdog as spirited as it's protagonist, hitting the mark squarely between stupid and stupendous.
Alita, for all the issues apparent in bringing her to life (accusations of whitewashing have dogged the film since the first images arrived online last year), is a genuinely well-written character. She’s initially childlike in her innocence, but unlike many of her contemporaries, is never forced to undergo trauma in order to realise her true potential - her’s is a story of self-driven discovery. One only wishes that Salazar’s performance shone brighter.
In sharp contrast to Andy Serkis’ variety of motion-capture roles or Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Salazar is lost behind the digital makeup. Even if it weren’t for the bizarre lip syncing (Alita speaks like a schoolchild attempting to hide chewing gum between their teeth), there’s just no getting away from the moon-sized eyes, which give her whole countenance the uncanny feel of those “real life” renderings of Peter Griffin or Homer Simpson: they didn’t work in YouTube thumbnails circa 2007 and they sure as hell don’t work now.
More disturbing still (for this film pushes the 12a certificate to breaking point) are the cobbled-together mechanical predators that stalk the alleys and subways at night. Though monstrous in form, their fear factor is somewhat diminished by their human faces, which appear to vaguely bob around over the area their necks should occupy. The toughest of them all, Zapan, is played by the perpetually boring Ed Skrein. With a blink-and-you’ll-doze-off appearance from no-one’s favourite dystopian hero, Jai Courtney, and Jennifer Connelly as Vector’s stony-faced accomplice, Alita’s not exactly bursting with great thespian performances.
But getting all het up at a Cameron-Rodriguez production for its lack of on-screen charisma feels like berating an untrained puppy for succumbing to the call of nature on your carpet: it’s exasperating, sure, but it did make you come over all dewy-eyed and protective. The sillier the one-liners (“I never killed anyone! I just paralysed and stripped them, that’s all!”), the more overblown the robot romps, the more entrancing Battle Angel becomes.
Shot in 3D and presented largely in the IMAX aspect ratio, it entertains best of all when going hell-for-leather with visual spectacle. A deadly game of Motorball (Rollerball with a dash of podracing and designed by the denizens of Fury Road) packs a wallop on the big screen. One of only five Hollywood productions in as many years to utilise native stereoscopy, it puts the countless retrofits clogging cinemas on a weekly basis to shame - how fitting that Alien franchise directors Cameron and Ridley Scott are the lone sentinels still championing the format.
As for Rodriguez’ own signature, look no further than the vast digital landscapes and near-ultraviolent grotesquery (there’s no shortage of disembodied eyeballs and flying limbs here). Tom Holkenborg (now official composer of the post-apocalypse) lends his signature thrumming excitement to the delirious action sequences, and Bill Pope’s keen eye ensures visual splendour aplenty. Alita’s core may be constructed from the best ideas of a dozen other films, but it’s guaranteed to look unlike any other you’ll see this year: that’s reason enough to save it from the scrapheap.