ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is a must-see visual spectacle and an enticing distopian drama.
By Matt Cummings
From a box office perspective, 2019 is already one of the worst in 10 years, down 15.5% from 2018. And although it would appear that immediate prospects will not improve until CAPTAIN MARVEL, I submit to you ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. At first appearing as a traditional YA drama with plug-and-play distopian elements, it matures into a visual spectacle with great action, very solid acting, and a story that exacts a high – and unexpected – price on its characters. Color me impressed.
In the 26th century, mankind has survived collapse after a war 300 years earlier. In this new dystopia, cyborg technology has become a way of life, leading many doctors like Dyson Ido (Christph Waltz) to practice a radical form of reconstructive medicine. But helping this chaotic and violent society isn’t Ido’s only goal: while searching a massive pile of trash he comes across the head and shoulders of a fallen cyborg warrior whom he names Alita (Rosa Salazar) and begins to reconstruct her. Soon, Alita’s old programming returns and she demonstrates both incredible power and dexterity while seeking answers to her initial death. Meanwhile, the gangster Vektor (Mahershala Ali) learns of Alita’s rebirth and takes violent steps to force her into his service. Vektor works for the powerful Nova, who runs the last floating city on Earth and keeps the rest of society tightly controlled through fear, violence, and the occasional roller derby events. Branded with a new sense of purpose, Alita sets out to learn about her past and seek revenge against Nova, forcing Ido and the mysterious research scientist Chrien (Jennifer Connelly) to relieve a painful memory from their shared past.
While its premise might suggest only the anime crowd will enjoy it, ALITA soon turns into a terse post-apocalyptic action drama, daring to kill off major characters – thus honoring the comic – while pontificating on the future of humanity and the machines it currently employs. While the answers are cautionary at best, the movie succeeds as both a high-flying action kill-fest and a deeper character drama than I expected. Really, I was thinking boy-meets-cyborg-love-story with a heavy dose of yawn. Instead, Alita herself matures into a good-old-fashioned killing machine, set to right the wrongs of a world where logic and proportion died in nuclear fire. Not only must she battle individual bounty hunters set to make stacks of cash at her demise, Alita also struggles with the truth behind her origins and Ido’s current dark pursuits. As I mentioned, a few important characters don’t survive ALITA, which creates an acute sense of danger . This sort of story arc isn’t typical for a Winter movie, but then again writer James Cameron isn’t your every day scribe. His work to blend the graphic novel with Hollywood sensibilities sees Alita and Dyson struggle both internally and externally before establishing themselves as the only answer against Nova. The idea that a cyborg who can account for all the suffering she has endured wouldn’t work without Salazar, and her very human performance keeps this world centered on her struggles.
This is also Director Robert Rodriguez’s best work in some time. He’s able to blend the needs of a big-budget epic (estimates suggest a $200m budget) with the necessity of bringing a sense to this post-nuclearized landscape. He keeps our attention focused on Salazar, and only early on do we think this will devolve into unpalatable YA before veering into an incredible visual spectacle. I appreciated the various design elements here, from the dark and mysterious Mad Max sets to the brutal band of bounty hunters, each bringing their own unique story and who exist in a sort of JOHN WICK world of economic pursuits. Much like AQUAMAN, Rodriguez does a great job of showing us the world of ALITA without too much exposition. The world’s messed up, there’s bad people like Vector, shadowy people like Chiren and the rest of humanity who struggle to survive under a system that will never give them freedom. Rodriguez also gives us one of the first effective battles on the Moon that I can remember and a really great pair of roller derby throwdowns. Waltz and Ali are interesting choices for Rodriguez, as we’re used to seeing them in Oscar fare. Their inclusion in ALITA gives the film the sort of dramatic heft it needs as Alita begins to realize her origins and that surrogate dad can no longer control her. Even her anti-climatic battle with Ali is nothing of the sort, as we’re gifted in the final scene with a cameo that will surprise everyone.
As we go to post, I’ve learned that any future installments of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL are sadly on hold, based entirely on critic reviews. Too bad: although it starts as typical distopian/YA angst, ANGEL evolves quickly into a thoroughly enjoyable action film with great performances and a clear mission that it should be allowed to complete. The auteur in Rodriguez has happily met with big-budget spectacle and the results represent an early Biggest Surprise award. Although it’s not without its faults – perhaps leading to the creative crossroads that we currently find it – it strives to question the future of humanity, what it will mean to be human, and what role machines will play in it. Those ought to be enough to encourage prospective audiences to give ALITA a chance, so long as they’re also not expecting AVATAR or SIN CITY. I guarantee nearly instant approval.
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some language and has runtime of 122 minutes.