James Cameron picked up the rights to make a live-action movie based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga and anime classic Battle Angel Alita back in the mid-90s and proceeded to take so long developing the project that he first used the experimental motion-capture animation techniques he developed for that film to create the Avatar franchise. Three decades later, Cameron finally arrived at a finished product by sliding into the producer’s seat and turning directing duties over to reliable “getting-it-done” machine Robert Rodriguez, who worked from a script by sci-fi-action specialist Laeta Kaelogridis.
One of the reasons a live-action Alita took so long to happen in the first place is that the it always sounded like a recipe for disaster, even without considering the difficulty of realizing the exaggerated cyberpunk anime visuals in something like live-action. Sure enough, Alita: Battle Angel is kind of a mess.
It’s too long, it’s narrative through-line meanders, it has something like a 12-act plot structure that arrives at what feels like a natural ending four or five times only to start the story back up again before seeming to settle on an “official” ending that doesn’t actually end the story. The push and pull between Cameron’s meticulous technical perfectionism and Rodriguez’s “Hey let’s randomly put Jeff Fahey in there for some reason!” gonzo grindhouse B-movie sensibility feels even more awkward than expected. This is before the anime-ness of the proceedings start to overwhelm the film altogether. The serious character actors who fill out the supporting cast are primarily a delight if you, like me, can’t get enough of scenes where Christoph Waltz must explain things like “state-licensed hunter-warriors,” “the floating sky city of Zalem,” “cyborg berzerker bodies,” and “the ancient Panzer Kunst martial arts technique” with total sincerity.
But underneath, or maybe precisely because of, all that awkward, ungainly, shambling nonsense Alita is honestly kind of awesome. I’m not really sure that it could be called “good” or “successful” on the terms it seems to set for itself, but it’s 100% committed to the unique wavelength its decided to operate on. Like with similar “big swing” oddities like Jupiter Ascending, David Lynch’s Dune, or John Boorman’s Excalibur, I was shocked to find myself enraptured by its energy and confidence. It’s an absurd, ridiculous, possibly mad endeavor, yet completely compelling. Alita: Battle Angel is a mess, but it’s utterly captivating and I think in spots I sort of loved it.
It’s hard to imagine even a grounded version of Alita: Battle Angel coming together coherently in 2019 given that the work itself is so specifically rooted in deconstructing the tropes and legacy of manga and anime. The base premise of the original, recreated with admirable faithfulness here, was essentially an extra edgy grim and gritty riff on Astro Boy. In a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future, impoverished citizens of an Earth city scrounge for valuables, weapons and cybernetic replacement body parts among the garbage dumped from the floating sky-city where the rich folks live. Only champions of an ultra-violent gladiatorial version of roller derby can hope to ascend. Waltz’s benevolent cyborg-surgeon happens upon the discarded head of a robot girl that turns out to contain a functioning human brain and ultra-powerful bionic heart: “Alita,” an amnesiac teenage cyborg, (spoiler altert!) was one of a powerful race of weaponized cyborg-soldiers who fought on the losing side of the war that nuked Earth into a gigantic class-conscious metaphor.
Officially, Alita’s aim is to uncover the truth of her origins by ascending through one path or another to the sky city of Zalem. But she also has to learn to be more human than weapon in the Iron Giant “I am not a gun” sense even though she only really seems to feel like herself when her loved ones are threatened and her “murder everyone with robot karate” programming kicks in. It’s here that Alita: Battle Angel drops its veil and reveals its true intentions, which weren’t immediately apparent from its advertising or production. Amazingly, this huge budget action film with whose protagonist is a teenage girl seems to actually be aimed at an audience of teenage girls.
It’s hard not to see middle-aged dad filmmakers trying too hard to imagine what will “connect” with a teen girl audience. On the other hand how often does ANY big movie of this type try at all to reach that audience?
Or at least what an older, mostly male filmmaking team thinks teenage girls want. Alita’s emotional development from robot to more human robot and overall “hero’s journey” arc is framed around falling for a cute boy, her first taste for chocolate and a love of roller skating. It’s hard not to see middle-aged dad filmmakers trying too hard to imagine what will “connect” with a teen girl audience. On the other hand how often does ANY big movie of this type try at all to reach that audience? That’s not a rhetorical question, just so we’re clear. I sincerely cannot tell whether or not Rodriguez and Cameron’s completely bonkers attempt at splicing Elysium, Blade Runner, ‘90s anime cliches and the American Girl doll line into a post-Katniss “hopepunk” heroine’s journey will be received by its audience with greater levels of “I feel so seen” or “Oh god, dad, thank you but PLEASE stop now.” Maybe it’s enough that they tried at all?
If in fact there is a previously-silent fanbase who’ve been waiting to see some aspect of themselves in a figure like Alita, they’ll certainly get a good look. The film looks spectacular. The effects for creating the various cyborgs are the best versions I’ve ever seen, and the motion-capture used to render Alita herself and a hulking brute villain inhabited by Jackie Earle Haley are utterly awe inspiring. Rodriguez and Cameron’s narrative sensibilities feel very much at odds considering this is an alpha-perfectionist’s three-decades-running passion project finally brought to fruition by a guy who shoots whole features based on ideas his kids had over the weekend. But it turns out seeing Rodriguez blow through a Cameron-sized budget complete with actual sprawling sets rather than his home-studio green screen is a real treat. The discipline seems to do him good. This is easily his best movie since the first Machete.
Rosa Salazar clearly had a herculean acting challenge in front of her bringing Alita to life. The degree the film works at all is in large part owed to how confidently she carries such bizarre material surrounding so complicated a character. She’s a revelation in the part and Cameron and Rodriguez deserve credit for making a young Latina actress the star of such a mammoth production and allowing her interpretation of the role to exist free of stereotypes or concessions. That’s no small feat.
The rest of the cast acquits themselves solidly. Waltz, as mentioned, is forced to handle a lot of silly plot exposition and to try and appear serious in fight scenes swinging a giant rocket-powered warhammer around. But he sells the humanity of the piece in his quiet scenes and makes the overwrought anime science dad trope feel real. Jennifer Connelly seems to be having a good time vamping it up as maybe the person more aware than anyone else of exactly what sort of movie this is. Mahershala Ali and Haley are both fantastic in villain parts and it’s fun to see a solid selection of unexpected character players round out the colorful background parts.
If there’s a weak link, it’s Keean Johnson as the supposed dreamboat to whom Alita literally offers her heart. Maybe he’s a good actor in some other context I’m not aware of, but he’s out of his depth here in a role that demands some complicated character turns. It brings things down as we come to realize how much of the story is eventually going to rest on some kind of investment in him. By the same token, while the sequences involving Alita playing violent rollerblade rugby are visually stunning, they go on a bit too long for how little they ultimately matter in terms of the actual story. If there’s one thing that scuttles a bunch of the goodwill Alita builds up, it’s the final act. Even in this age of franchising and presumed sequels, not even one of the Avengers movies could get away with having six or seven false endings and then not actually ending.
Still, it’s hard not to respect that the film has so many stumbles precisely because it takes so many chances. I’d rather see big movies “miss” while being idiosyncratic and passionate than succeed by being calculated and safe. Like the soulful, saucer-eyed Precious Moments Terminatrix it frames as a protagonist, Alita is a high-tech hodgepodge of “big-idea” sci-fi, unabashed anime silliness, gorgeous cyberpunk visuals, brutally intense violence and achingly sincere teen-girl melodrama that paradoxically feels triumphant in the moments it works because you can see how much of it shouldn’t have worked at all. Ultimately, I admired it, but I sense there’s an unserved audience in waiting who will adore it. They deserve to.