Alita: Battle Angel (2019) is the newest film directed by Robert Rodriguez, who also had his hand in the writing along with James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. I’ve long said Cameron is a better visual filmmaker than he is a scriptwriter, citing both Titanic and Avatar as being films that were saved by the stunning visual effects, despite having weak screenplays. Regardless of my negative feelings for Cameron’s more recent films, I went into Alita with hope, because many of Rodriguez’s films have really worked for me. While I have a few issues with the script for this movie, the main character and stunning visuals – which were aided by the IMAX 3D experience – made the movie extremely enjoyable.
Alita is fantastic combination of character and visuals
In Iron City, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) runs a clinic where he repairs robotic components and people for far too little money. While searching through the scrap yard, he finds a mostly destroyed cyborg with a still fully active brain and heart. He gives her a new body, and when she awakens with no memory, he gives her the name “Alita” (Rosa Salazar). Alita takes joy in being alive and is grateful for Dr. Ido, but the desire to find out who she truly is takes hold.
One of the hardest parts about reviewing a film that is so much CG is deciding who to give credit to. Alita is such an amazing character, and your love of her is what makes this movie so delightful. Salazar’s charm definitely shines through the CG performance, but the animators must also make so much of the emotion that character exhibits, and it’s hard to know who deserves more of the credit: performer or animator? Either way, Alita is a badass with a powerful heart – literally – that is impossible not to care for. She initially appears child-like, as everything is essentially new to her. This is demonstrated in one scene depicting her chomping into an orange – peel and all – then abruptly spitting it out into a napkin, which endears us to her quickly. Watching her become the titular “Battle Angel” and develop relationships with Dr. Ido and Hugo (Keean Johnson) while fighting with monsters like Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and Zapan (Ed Skrein) is all the more powerful because of that early connection. Salazar demonstrates that she has what it takes to be a leading lady.
Besides Salazar, there are some great and well-respected actors in this film who mostly get short shrift. Waltz is as strong as ever, and gets to break type quite a bit. Newcomer Johnson gives an earnest performance, but often feels like he’s not up to the task at hand. Skrien and Haley are excellent in their antagonist roles, and play-off Salazar extraordinarily well. The sad part was that Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali feel extremely underutilized, as does another actor who is essentially there to imply a potential sequel more than anything – another flaw I’ll get to in a minute. Both Ali and Connelly’s characters have major impacts on the plot, but considering the caliber of talent they bring, it seems they could have had much more to do.
The biggest problem with this movie is the third act. For the most part, it feels extremely rushed and anti-climatic. There are so many great sequences in this film, from quiet character moments to awesome CG action ones – that when we finally get to the big battle, it feels underwhelming. There is a part of me that agrees that a part of the issue is earned as we watch Alita grow into the warrior she was made to be, but it doesn’t offer any padding for the inevitable let down. Not to mention that the climax feels pushed aside to ensure an opportunity to set up a potential sequel – something that too many movies are concerned with doing. A reason I love film over TV is the digestible and bite-size story that doesn’t require more than a single sitting to grasp. The desire for franchise building won’t go away if there is potential money to be made…but if you fail to finish successfully telling your first story, what makes you think we’ll come back for a second?
Fortunately, Salazar and her digital counterpart Alita are too exceptional to walk out not loving in this movie. It’s the first film I’ve seen in a while that I was glad I shelled out the extra money for 3D, because it was totally worth it. The digital effects are superb, and the city and its inhabitants are definitely enhanced by the 3D experience. Alita: Battle Angel earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.