Jackie Earle Haley
2 Hrs., 2 Mins.
Alita: Battle Angel
lita: Battle Angel (2019), a new collaboration between the filmmakers James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, harks back to the early 1990s, when the enjoyably light-headed, visually ambitious, big-budgeted sci-fi blockbuster unrelated to the superhero or the fast and the furious was commonplace and popular. With the passage of time, this kind of movie has increasingly — albeit perhaps inevitably — become more of a
specialty than a ubiquitous fixture at the cineplex. With the floppings of throwback-ish ilk like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), the awareness that the days of standalone, behemoth pulp spectacles are over progresses by the hour.
While I watched Alita, I doubted Rodriguez and Cameron had much thought about shifting tastes going into production: The movie is made with the same earnestness and gravitas that suggests that nothing, in their minds, has changed by way of the blockbuster in the last 30 years. Which, despite the suggestively negative tone, is not entirely a setback.
The feature, which was executive-produced and co-written by Cameron and directed by Rodriguez, is an adaptation of Battle Angel Alita, a cyberpunk-style manga series that ran from 1990 to 1995. Cameron, who was introduced to the saga by the Spanish filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, first became attached to the project in the early 2000s. But a series of delays — among them his extortionate Avatar (2009), which has aged like an old bag of shredded mozzarella, if you ask me — led him to the sort of development hell that seemed to believe in eternal damnation, at least until around 2015.
Alita: Battle Angel might have fit more comfily in the zeitgeist of, at the latest, a decade ago. But its feeling so out-of-place in our late 2010s, I think, is part of what makes it so interesting. The film is set in 2563, in a debris-ridden, futuristic-looking metropolis called Iron City. Early on, we’re told that the world has been struggling to recover from a catastrophic incident for centuries. About 300 years ago, scientists developed a technology that enabled cities to float in the sky like clouds. But after an alien attack, every sky-based conurbation came crashing down, devastating everything underneath. Only one "sky city" — the affluent-only Zalem — remains.
This plot point is key to the story. Just as Alita begins, one of the movie’s primary protagonists, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), wanders about one of the many junkyards remaining post-event and discovers something intriguing: a disembodied female cyborg. Her brain is miraculously unspoiled. Thinking he can save her, Ido takes the most vital parts back home, attaches them to a new body, and then christens his new creation "Alita" in an homage to his late daughter.
Upon waking up, the reanimated bot (Rosa Salazar), a naif with a blunt black bob and cartoonishly gigantic eyes, is equal parts grateful to her rescuer and totally bemused: She has no memory of what she was doing before waking up. But based on her location, and a growing, then constant, instinct to fight whenever trouble bubbles up, it’s clear to her that she more than probably comes from Zalem, and that she must have been involved with something in her past life that required she be a soldier of some kind.
The narrative grows progressively complicated. But what can succinctly be said is that Alita does, indeed, have a background in warriorship, and that she will eventually be crucial in pushing back against the Zalem-affiliated evils that go unchecked in Iron City. She will also begin a romance — just days after being saved by Ido — with Hugo (Keean Johnson), a long-black-haired street punk who secretly strips robots for parts for the payout.
The pleasures of Alita: Battle Angel are enormous from the get-go. It inventively uses its heroine as a catalyst to discover the pretty wondrous Iron City — a labyrinthine town stuffed with robots, bounty hunters, skyscrapers, and a grungily fashioned populace. In some ways, the main setting is visually akin to the ones seen in the Blade Runner movies (1982, 2017). There’s a cheerier dirtiness, however, that sets Iron City apart. And Alita’s getting familiarized with it, against a backdrop of her both discovering who she is and what romance might be like, is written efficiently. There is a tangible wonder added to the first act.
What Rodriguez and Cameron do exceptionally in Alita: Battle Angel is build a world. What they don’t do so well is manufacture a smooth-running, accessible plot. The gist is essentially that Alita, once thrown away, eventually gets to know herself, and, afterward, is able to reclaim her destiny by getting back at the people who discarded her. But the hubbub of side plots — like her becoming a star of a kooky soccer-like game called Motorball; like the romance, which, while genially puppy-eyed and gender-norm-reversing, adds little; like villainous goings-on, which are unexpectedly profuse — eventually encase Alita in the classic action-movie banality of “too much going on at one time.” Some but not all of the extraneous narratives are gratuitous. But the underdevelopment of most sometimes makes it feel as though the majority are. By the end of the film, I felt so pinballed that I wasn’t even quite sure what to make of the final image, which has a cliffhanger edge that hints at a sequel I suspect is never coming.
Though the movie was directed by Rodriguez, who is responsible for some of the most rewatchable and brazenly wingy movies of his generation, from Spy Kids (2001) to Sin City (2005), Alita is very much a James Cameron movie. It’s singularly grandiose, aspirational, and strangely traditional — characteristics common in all his movies, however otherworldly. But more noticeably, and I think more detrimentally, Alita curtails the in-the-know cheekiness Rodriguez has for so long drummed into his best films. I like Alita particularly because it makes for such an amiable deviation from the neo-blockbuster norm. But I wonder how much larger an imprint it might have made had it bore Rodriguez’s trademark idiosyncrasy, and had it been made tightly rather than noncommittally and oversensorily. Its constant busyness and running time undercut a lot of the alluring anachronism, both in terms of its futuristic setting and its ‘90s blockbuster style. What will come of it? B-