Release: February 14, 2019
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, from Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro
Starring: Rosa Salazar as Alita, Christoph Waltz as Dyson Ido, Keean Johnson as Hugo, Mahershala Ali as Vector, Ed Skrein as Zapan, Jackie Earl Haley as Grewishka, and Jennifer Connelly as Dr. Chiren
Running Time: 122 minutes
By 2017, Hollywood’s never ending lust for comic book properties to adapt to the screen led, at long last, to the shores of far off Japan. The live action adaptation of celebrated manga/anime franchise Ghost in the Shell released to a chorus of virtue signaling jeers and not much fan fare. What was tarred as a film that was made by Hitler himself that would literally erase Asian people from existence ended up being a rather middling affair. A standard issue drab, grey American sci-fi flick with glacial pacing and phoned in performances from its principle cast that told the story of an amnesiac cyborg attempting to piece together her forgotten past. Needless to say, when I was at the local cineplex and I saw a trailer for Alita: Battle Angel, excitement was the farthest thing that I felt. Another adaptation of a Japanese cyberpunk comic dealing with an amnesiac cyborg trying to piece back together the fragments of her forgotten past? Didn’t that fall apart the first time? While it did manage to avoid the charges of “white washing” and “orientalism” that followed Ghost in the Shell’s pre-release, Alita was not without a small controversy surrounding it. Releasing around the same time as Disney/Marvel’s Captain Marvel, some fans latched onto Alita as a sort of “piss off” to Disney for what they perceived as the anti-male and racist attitude of Brie Larson. This, of course, led to the predictable accusations of naziism and “alt-right” (whatever that means for the next five second) being lobbed at the film’s fans.
I’m sorry to report that, contrary to what you may have heard, Alita does not relay the story of how Hitler hopped a time machine just as the allies were pressing down on his location, traveled back to 1854 to found the Republican Party and then moved to Britain to run Margaret Thatcher’s campaign for Prime Minister. Alita: Battle Angel opens with Dr. Dyson Ido sifting through a mountainous scrapyard where he finds an intact head and torso of a cyborg woman. He takes the cyborg back to his lab and attachers her to a new body. She awakens the next morning with no memory of who she is. Ido takes her around town with him on errands and the film takes the time to introduce people to the setting through some lore building exposition. While out and about with Ido, Alita meets Hugo, a young scrap dealer, and is immediately smitten. That night, Alita spies Ido returning home late sporting a gaping wound on his forearm. The next morning, she persuades Ido to let her go out on her own. She meets up with Hugo once again and he introduces her to his friends and to the sport of Motorball. That night, Alita secretly follows Ido as he leaves the house after dark. She discovers that Ido moonlights as a bounty hunter and has been tracking down a serial killer who has been hacking up women. The killer, actually a trio of cyborgs, emerge from the shadows and the five do battle. During the fight, Alita recovers a lost memory. She surmises that the rush of battle could have helped her remember and resolves to become a bounty hunter herself, much to Ido’s chagrin. This is where the real meat of the film begins, so I’ll stop there so as not to spoil it for any of you haven’t seen it, but may wish to.
Alita is a sleek cyberpunk action melodrama that stands as one of the few instances of a studio stepping outside of the superhero milieu since this comic book movie trend began eleven or so years ago. It also eschews many of the worst aspects of its PG-13 comic movie contemporaries. While much of the superhero offerings have devolved into twee “omg so random” humor worthy of a 1990s family sitcom, the filmmakers behind Alita have chosen to chart a slightly more serious path. Beginning as a light sort of sci-fi slice of life, Alita decends over the course of its running time, even going so far as to end on a down note. Dramatic sequences are allowed to be dramatic, and Rodriguez’s action sequences play out smoothly with few (if any) instances of the action stopping dead for characters to randomly riff.
While it doesn’t necessarily nail the cyberpunk aesthetic 100 percent, Alita does a much better job than some of its contemporaries. Iron City captures the look of cyberpunk better than recent contemporaries like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner 2049 by eschewing drab, clinical Nolan/Villeneuve grey haze in favor of a grimy look broken by splashes of bright, vibrant colour. The look of the cyborgs eschews the modern trope of flowing, more human than human lines in favour of something more retro futuristic. With the exception of the titular character, most boast designs that look piecemeal, as if they were cobbled together out of scrap. Rosa Slazar, who has been something of a bit player to this point as far as I can tell, does an outstanding job in the lead role as Alita. Mahershala Ali puts out a great performance as the conniving, if somewhat underwhelming, villain Vector. Forgettable actor Ed Skrein’s one note douchebag finally finds a role it fits nicely into as the egotistical Zapan. The special effects, while not necessarily remarkable, are workmanlike and consistent, something of an impressive feat in comic book movies these days.
My main problem with Alita is that it feels like the intro to something bigger. This is a problem with a lot of modern cinema. The first film in a franchise shouldn’t feel like the first film in a franchise. It is arrogant and ultimately stupid to do this. What if the movie bombs? You set up a sequel and then you have no sequel. Ultimately, I think more films would do well to take the Star Wars route. The first film left just enough thread dangling that a sequel could be easily made, but was self contained enough that if it had flopped it could have lived on as a decent cult flick. Cameron and Rodriguez have hinted that there could be multiple sequels to this film, but with the film being speculated to need somewhere between 400 million and 500 million dollars in ticket receipts to break even and having brought in around 404 million, that seems like a pretty unlikely event.
That being said, if you haven’t seen Alita: Battle Angel, give it a go.