FILM REVIEW: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is a Cyberpunk Techno-Marvel with Real Heart

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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ does something remarkable. It is an eye-popping showcase for cutting-edge special effects without falling into the trap of dodgy writing and sub-par acting. Its biggest success however is finally showing the powerful potential of Anime and Manga being translated to live-action films.

If you were to ask me what type of film ‘Alita’ is, my knee-jerk reaction is to categorize it alongside films like ‘Valerian’, ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘Jupiter Ascending.’ These are not only CGI showcases but are in their own ways, heavily inspired by anime. Unfortunately those films also carry an association of less-than-stellar quality. I love ‘Pacific Rim’ dearly. It’s a movie I find myself watching a few times a year and the experience of seeing it in IMAX 3D the first time is one of my most exciting movie memories. But I will be the first to admit that much of the acting is awful and the dialogue atrocious.  I think this could also be said of Japanese Anime which is often signaled by over-the-top and monumentally bad-ass visuals combined with stilted line delivery and incomprehensible plots. In a way, that has become the personality of the form. Melodrama mixes with world-ending stakes. It’s what you sign up for with Anime. I think that Guillermo del Toro was going for that with ‘Pacific Rim’ so I’m willing to forgive it. I’m willing to forgive a lot if I get to see (in the words of del Toro) “giant fucking robots fighting giant fucking monsters.” In fact, I’m such a sucker for eye-popping sci-fi visuals that I’m usually willing to forgive a lot. I saw the critically-panned ‘Valerian’ three times in theaters and ‘Jupiter; Ascending’ remains a guilty pleasure for me. But in every one of those cases I wished that I could have the spectacular visuals with solid acting and strong dialogue.

‘Alita’ manages to marry the influence of Anime and a tone that takes the material seriously better than any film since ‘The Matrix.’ It’s a delicate balance, one that even the Wachowskis themselves haven’t been able to replicate. Another comparison that will be rightly earned will be to ‘Avatar.’ After all, this film is partially written by James Cameron and the special effects wizards at WETA are responsible for the visuals. No one really talks about ‘Avatar’ any more. Except to talk about how no one talks about ‘Avatar’ any more. There is no way of denying its effect on society’s fabric. It’s still the top grossing film of all time, which means that not only did you likely see it in theaters, but so did your grandparents and your dentist and people who hadn’t been to a movie in years. The thing that brought people to the theaters, multiple times in many cases, were WETA’s visuals and James Cameron’s perfectionist attention to detail. I can almost guarantee you that people weren’t there for the story. The story in ‘Avatar’ wasn’t the point. The rote white savior hero’s journey was not a bug, it was a feature. It was a simple story so it could be universal. It didn’t make my or most people’s top ten films of the year. It likely won’t crack the AFI 100 Best. But it won all the Oscars and made all the money. I say all of this to drive home this point: the best parts of ‘Avatar’ are here, but the acting ranges from non-offensive at worst and quite good at best and these are characters I actually cared about.

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Based on the Manga by Yukito Kishiro, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ begins as Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the broken remains of a robot in a junk pile. An expert in cybernetics, Dr. Ido rebuilds the destroyed machine using the robot body he had created for his late daughter and within the first few minutes we are introduced to Alita performed with the same motion-capture technology used in ‘Avatar’ (with all the improvements a decade brings) by the remarkable Rosa Salazar. I did not know Salazar as an actress prior to this which allowed me to see Alita as a fully-formed character unburdened by familiarity. Salazar plays Alita with a tenderness, wonder and impatience that is immediately engaging. Much has been made of the fact that Alita is portrayed with huge Anime-like eyes. I will absolutely admit that I found it distracting and silly when I first saw the trailer. If done wrong, it could have been a disaster, but in the capable hands or Rosa Salazar’s performance and the animators at WETA, the decision creates sympathy and stylistic flair for Alita.

As Alita explores her world and tries to piece together her unremembered past, she meets a boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) who introduces her to Junk City, a dystopian  sprawl populated with cybernetically-augmented citizens living the shadow of a monstrous city in the sky. Almost everyone in Junk City dreams of making it out to Salem high above. This desire is often used to manipulate people into doing anything necessary to eventually make it out (side note: this plot-line reminded me of the Anime-inspired ‘Elysium’ to the point where I wonder if it’s a direct nod to the Alita Manga.) One of the only sure ways to make it to Salem is to become a champion of Junk City’s number one sport: Motorball. Motorball is not far off from the fictional future-sport Rollerball (from the film(s) of the same name.) Alita kindles new love with Hugo as he teaches her to play Motorball, takes her for rides on his electro-hulk unicycle and shows her his favorite rooftop. Right about the time when I was growing concerned that this would be a YA novel-esque amnesia techno-fantasy, Alita is cornered in an alley by villains and Christoph Waltz wielding a comically-oversized  rocket-powered mega-hammer starts to whoop some cyborg butt.

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Hear me clearly, dear reader: this movie kicks serious ass.

I need it to be understood: kicking ass is not enough. There are plenty of movies which have breathtaking action sequences but are so devoid of stakes and weighed down by inane story lines that it simply does not matter (see the recent live-action Anime adaptation ‘Ghost in the Shell.) While the story of ‘Alita’ is nothing entirely-original, it is inoffensive and for my money, far more compelling than the critically-absolved ‘Avatar.’ So when the characters are played seriously and the dialogue is passable-if-not-compelling, yet the action is this jaw-droppingly executed: it’s a recipe for something special. ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is filled with action sequences that almost brought me to my feet with excitement. Henchmen are thrown at our hero with the frequency of a video game. Many will see this as a bug. I see it as a feature.

The director Robert Rodriguez is a talent I thought we had lost. Rodriguez used to be one of my favorite filmmakers. I still hold ‘Desperado’ and ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ to be some of the gold standards for cohesive balls-to-the-wall action. His work as an action director and editor were among some of the best in the nineties. In my opinion, this carried through to ‘The Faculty’ (a movie I still adore) and even the first ‘Spy Kids’ which I felt took his ingenious eye for action and applied it to a children’s movie. Then something happened. He made two more ‘Spy Kids’ movies which became increasingly choked by sub-par CGI and silly writing then the highly anticipated ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’ which was a convoluted mess that landed with a thud. There was a temporary reprieve with ‘Sin City’ which was astounding at the time for its direct translation of Frank Miller’s art, but it has aged badly. Then there was more chilren’s shlock with ‘Shark Boy and Lava Girl’ before he entered his grindhouse-films-for-people-who-don’t-understand-grindhouse phase with ‘Planet Terror’ and the ‘Machete’ films. And let’s not even talk about that other ‘Sin City’ movie. So yes. Another beloved nineties director who lost their edge. Not the first, not the last.

It’s wonderful to have Robert Rodriguez back. This is him at his stylish best. The same man who helped realize Sex Machine on film now brings us a cowboy hat and duster-jacketed cyborg Jeff Fahey with a squad of robotic attack dogs and Casper Van Dien’s head atop a hulking robot complete with razor sharp Doctor Octopus tentacles. There is Ed Skrein (‘Deadpool’s’ Francis) who has mastered handsome-and-punchable vapid villains like almost no one these days as a chromed-out killer with a samurai sword and an action set-piece in a bar which looks like a whole lot like ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’s’ Titty Twister.

Alita 2 ‘Alita’ is that movie. It is proud in its pulp roots and wears its Anime/Manga inspiration on it’s sleeve. For many people, something mired in so much ham-fisted and face-melting excess will never connect. But I truly believe for it’s occasionally clunky dialogue and teenager-simplistic storytelling, there is something genuine at the heart of ‘Alita.’ There are three Academy Award winning actors here and none of them are phoning it in. Christoph Waltz is warm and refreshingly restrained. Jennifer Connelly is elegant and cold. Mahershala Ali in a quasi dual-role is captivating as always. ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is a fist-pumping feast for the eyes, but also one that I’m not embarrassed to admit I loved. Films like this always run the danger of becoming a guilty pleasure. This one is simply a pleasure. Very little guilt.

On a technical note, the screening for ‘Alita’ was in 3D and it was truly stunning. I can’t speak to how this will play in 2D but I would guess that the near-perfect CGI visuals would be enough to sell it. I have always been a fan of 3D when done well and have been sad to see the way it was abused and ultimately rejected by audiences. I do highly recommend seeing this in 3D if you can though. Much like ‘Avatar,’ this is the new high bar for cinematic technical progress.

The year is young but ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is my favorite film of the year so far. Looking at what is coming out soon, I doubt that will last, but this film deserves to be seen. Not only for the magnificent visuals, but for the care that was put into the performances and genuine love for filmmaking on display. This is the first time that I feel like I’ve truly seen an Anime brought to life in a live action film. That is an impressive feat and it’s surprising it has taken this long.

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is in theaters on February 14th, 2019