Alita: Battle Angel is an AI cyberpunk action adventure thriller 20-years-in-the-making based on the Japanese manga comic book series, Gunnm. Alita writer and producer, James Cameron, is constantly pushing boundaries with film, which probably explains his latest sci-fi movie and its motion capture lead performance. While the Battle Angel Alita series was released in 1990, Cameron has been holding onto the film rights, waiting for 3D visual effects technology to reach a critical mass. After his Alita-inspired TV series Dark Angel and box office success with Avatar, the acclaimed film-maker stepped it up a gear, eventually summoning Planet Terror’s Robert Rodriguez to the director’s chair.
The story follows the revival of a deactivated female cyborg, who is found on a scrapyard near Iron City, reassembled and called to embark on a quest to find out who she was in her past life. Rosa Salazar takes on the titular role, using motion capture to translate her performance into the expression and movement of a humanoid cyborg. The styling makes her eyes distractingly over-sized, something you do become accustomed to, which while fitting… may have lost some of Salazar’s facial expression. She’s supported by the singular Christoph Waltz, who plays Ido, her cybernetics doctor turned father figure in a much friendlier role than we’ve come to expect from the tricky and talented actor. Adding more dramatic heft and credibility, is Jennifer Connelly in a turn as the wicked stepmother, Chiren.
Alita: Battle Angel is set in a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world with echoes of Blade Runner, Elysium, Ghost in the Shell, The Running Man, The Fifth Element, Robocop, Transformers and Real Steel. Blade Runner for setting and mood, Elysium for political hierarchy, Ghost in the Shell for its cyber-enhanced super soldier, The Fifth Element for its grand comic sci-fi, The Running Man for its futuristic arena games, Robocop for its mechanised policed state, Transformers for its alien bot powers and Real Steel for its scrap heap spirit.
“So if I’m “Alita”, that must make you Geppetto, right?”
It’s a magpie of a sci-fi film based on a work, which much like John Carter, could have been the inspiration for many of the aforementioned films. Taking a Frankenstein slant with the central relationship between a cybernetics doctor and his cyborg assembly, the film gets to grips with Alita finding her place as artificial intelligence in transition and recalling her past life. Realising her unique abilities in an effort to protect those she loves, Alita finds herself knee-deep in a conspiracy and stuck in limbo between her new and old life.
While the visual effects are dazzling, the action choreography moves like ballet and the production design is immersive, Alita struggles with tone, trying to find the right balance between gut-busting action and star-crossed cyborg-human romance. On the one robotic hand, it’s an actioner about the ultimate assassin and on the other skin-covered one, an unlikely love story. Perhaps staying true to the sometimes cheesy schlock of manga action-romance hybrids, it makes for some cliched and rather cloying moments you’d expect from a paint-by-numbers teenage romance drama. What does help is the film’s wink-wink self-awareness at times, falling prey to the groan of predictability only to reverse the outcome with unexpected humour.
Committed to entertaining, smart enough to make fun of itself and pulpy enough to be comic book fun, it’s a familiar and mostly enjoyable sci-fi thriller that packs a punch. While a tad overlong and restrained by the dull familiarity of similar sci-fi films, Alita: Battle Angel will appease most fans of the genre with its patchwork of better films. While it encompasses much of the series, Alita leaves the pod door wide open for a sequel.
The bottom line: Entertaining