After finally tapping out on the idea of directing his 20-year passion project the great James Cameron decided to hand over the reins of the Anime classic Alita: Battle Angel to another. In this case Director Robert Rodriguez of Spy Kids and From Dusk To Dawn fame.
While I’m not a huge fan of Rodriguez’s work, I’m in love with his passion for his visual and unique style of film making. His films generally lack substance, but you can see his passion in every frame of what ends up on screen. In short, his films are never boring. Alita is his most accomplished, well rounded film to date thanks in part to Cameron’s tightly focused script.
I walked into this film cold, beyond watching a Trailer that I found confusing and uninspired it was refreshing walking into this move completely cold, not knowing what was going on. This confusion works well Alita (Rosa Salazar ), mysterious cyborg found in a trash heap, is going through similar emotions. From the moment she wakes up on Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz ) table she’s thrust into this strange new world with no idea who she is or what’s in store. You need to have patience for this story because it doesn’t rush through its storytelling and there is a lot of exposition here.
What is this world?
There are two societies left on earth after a war in the 23rd century wiped out most of the technological progress. There’s a mysterious utopian society in the sky called Zalem that literally dumps all its trash on the people they left behind. The Iron City is a society of scavengers where people do what it takes to get by, they scavenge old tech to create cybernetic parts for themselves. Some of them use these parts to fight in some weird futuristic Cyborg roller ball derby and when they aren’t doing that they are serving as bounty hunters who and scavengers who kidnap and kill cybernetic parts.
This story takes place 300 years after “The Fall” and the events of the war. The mostly CGI world of Iron City looks lived in and is brilliantly realized. It’s cluttered, slightly claustrophobic and dirty. You can understand why a lot of people spend their days looking up at the sky and dream going up to Zalem.
Characters and Story
While this is an typical action film, it really isn’t. Rodriguez is in love with his lead character and never lets the bombastic, post-apocalyptic vision he created get in the way of the central sense of wonder he’s trying to create. People who don’t like CGI will not like this movie as Rodriguez is in love with CGI and he flexes his muscles here. As he teams up with actress Rosa Salazar to bring a fully realized CGI Alita to life. In the beginning of the film I honestly wondered if Alita was a real human or CGI actor (remember I knew nothing about this film).
Of course, the overexaggerated Anime style eyes Alita were sporting should have clued me in. Due to their size, you can really see all of the emotional resonance that Rosa was able to bring to life. I know CGI characterization has been at this level since Andy Serkis did it in LOTR, but I actually like Alita whereas I never liked Gollum. I’m still skeptical about the idea of relying on motion captured characters for films like this because it does tend to make everything feel cold and shallow but when done right like it is hear, its impressive.
Christoph Waltz does a fine job as Dr. Dyson Ido the man who discovers Alita in the dumb heap and rebuilds her. He becomes her defacto father figure as he tries to guide her through her “rebirth,” and sees Alita as a sort replacement for the daughter he lost. Jennifer Connelly , who we don’t see enough of, is Chiren his bitter ex-wife a fellow Cyborg doctor who is working with the top gangster/official in Iron City played by Mahershala Ali . It was weird seeing the always dignified Ali in a villain role. Keean Johnson is Hugo a young scavenger who against Dyson’s wishes takes Alita under his wing and dreams of one day going to Zalem utopian city that hangs above them like an impossible dream.
My new pet peeve is I loathe this need Hollywood has to turn every film into a franchise and force us to watch these half-baked movies that never seem to actually end. Its why I have zero interest in watching Avatar or Fantastic Beast I have no desire to watch a film series that won’t end for another 7 or 8 years and that’s assuming we even get the full thing and studios don’t decide to can the entire project 2 or 3 movies in. Just tell a full story and move on. Filmmakers seem incapable of doing that these days. Alita does not fall into this trap. It tells a full, if not confusing, story that has a clear, beginning, middle and ending with no real lose ends by the end.
There is a bad guy doing whatever bad guys do in the background but his presence has no real impact on the story here, so I didn’t care that there was no resolution to that plot point. Honestly, the plot was a bit bare bones, as I said before the story is about Alita’s journey towards discovering who she is, not an overarching grand conspiracy. It wants to be that, it alludes to the idea that she’s going to be vital, but never quite goes there.
I need to see this again to get a fuller understanding of the plot, but for now, I’m just going to throw in a little tedious plot summary from the production notes:
I saw this at an AMC Dolby Cinema in 3D and while the 3D didn’t add much to the visual flair, the premium screening format brought the world to life. The rumble of the chairs, the booming Atmos audio mix and beautiful visuals outweighed some of the minor pitfalls in James Cameron’s script. I’m sure fans of the source material will nitpik and find fault with everything but as someone who doesn’t have any preconceived notions I loved this film and thought it was the first great movie of 2019.
Final Grade A-