Alita: Battle Angel

(2019) ** 1/2 Pg-13
122 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Robert Rodriguez. Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali.

/content/films/5148/1.jpgI ask you: when was the last time you heard an enthusiastic “Hi-yah!” in a movie not starring Miss Piggy? The martial-arts exclamation serves as but one sign of the unpretentious genre pop that is Alita: Battle Angel. Based on the manga Gunnm, this cyberpunk extravaganza arrives under the auspices of co-writer and producer James Cameron. Cameron long planned to direct the script he co-wrote with Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island), but after sixteen years of on-and-off development while Cameron attended to Avatar and other projects, Alita finally arrives from director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids). The resulting film retains a lot of Cameron-esque DNA—perhaps especially the skillful application of 3D, worth the upgrade at the box office—while also feeling like the kind of big-budget picture that is Rodriguez’s due after years of economical genre fare.

The “Battle Angel” of the title literally comes together in the film’s first scenes, as cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) of Iron City scavenges the refuse dropped from Zalem (last of the great sky cities, doncha know) and discovers “a total replacement cyborg” with a “miraculously intact” human brain. This is Alita, soon to be the sensation of post-war 2563. As portrayed by Rosa Salazar in a motion-capture performance rendered over with CGI, Alita has pep, heart, and a Tim Burton-esque whimsy about her, at least at first. Soon enough her big-eyed patchwork-doll design goes to work kicking butt, first as a Motorball player and then as a Hunter-Warrior.

If you’re picking up that Rodriguez's film is busy with world-building exposition, you’re not wrong. Suffice it to say that Alita: Battle Angel resembles Dr. Ido in its repurposing of spare parts. The filmmakers do a fine job of evoking manga and anime in their pop-culture mashup style and lush romanticism (Alita falls into a tragic romance with Keean Johnson’s cute boy Hugo), but it’s also hard not to think of Robocop, Rollerball, and The Hunger Games. There’s a dash of Jack the Ripper here, a dose of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes there on Alita’s face (and the casting of Waltz—coincidence?). Add a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, and Jeff Fahey and, all told, Alita works hard to make boredom an improbability.

The film’s world is indeed richly realized, with highly detailed photo-realistic CGI backgrounds and elaborate, colorful set pieces. The plot may be silly, but Alita is big dumb fun. And if there’s something a bit fetishistic about this doe-eyed killer with the rockin’ bod, at least Alita’s character arc takes her from naïve and passively happy to powerful and fiercely concerned with justice, for herself and her broken peers. Though simplistic in the extreme, the vision of a downtrodden striver stuck below a rich city strikes a chord. Alita sets up sequels that may never arrive—the hugely expensive production may well fail to break even—but I wouldn’t mind seeing more from the battle angel who can hold her own in a fight and offer you the heart out of her own chest.

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