PLOT: Five hundred years into the future, after a catastrophic war has left earth almost uninhabitable, only the poor are left to wander the surface, while the wealthy live in the sky city of Zalem. While scouring a junkyard for parts, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), who specializes in treating cyborgs, comes across the discarded body of a young cyborg with a human brain. Naming her Alita (Rosa Salazar), he rebuilds her body and takes her in as a surrogate daughter, but sinister forces want the lost technology contained in Alita’s mind and body for themselves.
REVIEW: I’ll admit that I was skeptical when it came to ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. I must admit that I have no familiarity with the manga whatsoever, but after watching the first trailer, it looked like an expensive mess. However, I felt the same way after watching the trailer for James Cameron’s last foray into sci-fi, AVATAR, only to come around when I saw Pandora depicted in state-of-the-art, immersive IMAX 3D. While yes, Cameron only wrote and produced ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, enough of his sensibility is present for me to have felt the same way about the tactile, immersive universe they depict here.
The fact is, you really can’t judge this movie by the trailers because, more so than in a lot of films, you need a bit of time to get used to the onscreen reality. Once you settle in (which admittedly takes a good twenty minutes or so) you find yourself totally invested, and scenes from the trailer which may have seemed silly taken out of context work fantastically well in the film itself.
Director Robert Rodriguez wound-up being the perfect choice to fill-in for Cameron, as he’s really adapted his own sensibility to serve-up a film that you’d swear was directed by Cameron himself if you didn’t know better. Now, this doesn’t mean the film is perfect. Once Cameron gave up R-rated action movies, he changed his style and embraced an old-fashioned approach that might strike some as corny. ALITA has some of that — specifically in the gooey teen romance between the titular heroine and her on-screen love interest, Hugo (Keean Johnson). However, corny doesn’t mean ineffective, and the simplicity of the storytelling in some regards makes the film all the easier to get sucked into.
It helps that the VFX are absolutely amazing. I hate 3D, but mark my words, that format is the only way to see this. IMAX 3D is even better, given the shifting aspect ratios. The technology to animate Alita is astounding, as she never feels like a walking special effect, helped no doubt by the fact that Rosa Salazar gives a terrific, star-making performance. Like Andy Serkis has done in his films, it makes you reconsider the limits of motion capture, as this feels like a fully realized performance. She gives Alita a soul.
The problem, though, is that Salazar is so good, some of the others come up short. One person who seemed miscast is Christoph Waltz. While effective when Ido is playing sweet and fatherly, he also has to jump in on a few of the action scenes, and Waltz isn’t convincing wielding giant weapons. Maybe Ido is supposed to look silly in action, but it takes you out of the film to a certain degree. Jeff Fahey has a tiny cameo and I couldn’t help but wonder how he might have fared instead.
The villains are also a little weak. Mahershala Ali camps it up as an evil entrepreneur, Vector, although he’s presented as a subordinate to the real, mostly off-screen villain. It’s tough to see him as a real threat to the invincible Alita. Of the baddies, Jackie Earle Haley, in a motion-capture performance as the towering Grewishka, comes off the best, while Jennifer Connelly brings some much-needed humanity as her more ambiguous character.
While sometimes a mixed bag, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is more often than not a total blast, and the two-hour running time whizzes by. The drag is, the story is missing its third act which clearly is being used as the foundation for a sequel, but who knows if one will ever happen? I tend to dislike blatant franchise building, especially when a follow-up isn’t guaranteed. That said, as much as box office prognosticators have been pegging this as a future flop, the non-critic audience I saw this with in Montreal absolutely ate it up. In fact, many attendees were there for their second screening, already cosplaying as their favorite characters. It may open soft and get mixed reviews by critics that are too put-off by its inherent silliness, but word of mouth on ALITA may take people by surprise. I walked in all set to hate what I thought would be a loud, obnoxious wannabe franchise started\r, but it totally won me over. There’s something more to ALITA than the trailers are able to evoke. Hopefully, folks will give it a shot.