Back in the 1990s when Yukito Kishiro wrote and illustrated his Battle Angel Alita comic book series, watching robots race and fight to the death might have seemed more novel than it does now.
With, Transformers, Pacific Rim and Real Steel, movies about battle 'bots aren't exactly innovative. Fortunately, the gritty exteriors and confrontations in Alita: Battle Angel are breathtakingly realized even if the story seems to have been downloaded a few too many times.
With James Cameron (Avatar, The Terminator) producing and co-writing the script and Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) directing, Kishiro's gloomy dystopian world is presented with an eye for detail that was nowhere to be found in The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. Even though those movies were well-made, you could tell when the effects budget got thin.
That's not a problem with Alita.
Cameron's access to a large production budget and Rodriguez's expert staging result in impressive melees and panoramic views unthinkable in less well-capitalized post-apocalyptic movies based on young adult novels.
While the grit and the thrills of Kishiro's books remain, it's a little tricky building a movie around a cyborg amnesiac. The title character is a face and processor Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers in an overgrown landfill. The 'bot may not have a memory or arms and legs, but the good doctor has a suitable body for her, and Alita (a motion-capture performance by Bird Box's Rosa Salazar) has a functioning processor, even if her memory is blank.
Ido specializes in providing robots and poor people with new limbs that he cobbles together from the remains of other devices. Sadly, most patients can only pay him with food or gratitude. For better or worse, he has other ways of making a living.
Alita may have been born yesterday, but she gets around the city quickly. She learns that she's currently residing with the less fortunate, while the rich and powerful live in opulent structures that literally look down on the rest of the town.
Alita may be naive, but she's the polar opposite of helpless. When confronted, she can outwit and outmaneuver most opponents. If her antagonists have arms and legs that come with saws or guns, she simply dodges the weapons and takes out the other robots' core processors.
Despite being a robot with large, kewpie doll eyes, Alita falls for a young man named Hugo (Keean Johnson) who hopes that racing will take him and his buddies out of the underworld. The competition looks a lot like metallic roller derby and seems to offer more fatalities than status advancement.
Ido is understandably nervous about Alita's eagerness to take up racing, and his ex-wife Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) wonders if he's simply trying to resurrect the flesh-and-blood daughter they had in real life.
While at two hours flat, Alita is far shorter than a fraction of Cameron's Titanic or Avatar, it takes awhile to get involved with a heroine who has a mechanical head, a human heart and a face from the uncanny valley.
Salazar gives a fully realized motion capture performance, and the special effects wizards manage to give just enough expressions to make Alita's human-but-not-human features come alive. Eventually, Salazar's digital persona blends with the human cast, but it takes a while to buy into it.
The three Oscar-winners (Waltz, Connelly and Mahershala Ali) in the cast do deliver, although Connelly has the unenviable task of delivering pseudo-technical babble convincingly while sporting sexy outfits that Waltz and Ali don't have to wear.
Some of the other killer robots are well-realized and look appropriately intimidating. One wonders if Alita might have been more involving if she looked a little less human. Andy Serkis' turn as a chimp in the Planet of the Apes movies and Josh Brolin's take on Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War worked because they looked just inhuman enough to sidestep the uncanny valley, even if their expressions and voices easily survived the digital conversion.
That said, you won't need an advanced processor like Alita's to predict plot changes. Creating jaw-dropping landscapes is easy for Cameron and company. Portraits remain a challenge.
MovieStyle on 02/15/2019
Alita: Battle Angel
83 Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Lana Condor, Idara Victor, Jeff Fahey, Eiza González
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Print Headline: FILM REVIEW: James Cameron’s clout makes three Oscar winners and a baby ’bot look good in 'Alita'