ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

alita battle angel

I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

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