After a tremendously successful catalog of high concept, well-made blockbusters churned out for little to no money (Machete, Sin City, Death Proof, The Faculty, the animated Red Sonja and yes, Spy Kids–those movies were a lot of fun), Robert Rodriguez has turned his attention to the big blockbuster arena, taking a considerably bigger budget (it’s a reported $200m, and that’s not including advertising, marketing and promotion) to work out on his passion project, Alita: Battle Angel. And he’s not alone here: Rodriguez had considerable help from the king of blockbuster films himself, James Cameron, who worked hard on the script to translate some of the magic from the heyday of his Terminator franchise, glamming up Alita’s action sequences and anchoring the story in reality.
It’s been reported that Fox, on the brink of being sold to Disney, was a little worried about this movie turning a profit. Well, I’m happy to report that if there’s any justice in the world, Alita: Battle Angel will make all the money, because it’s not only an amazing film, but one of Rodriguez and Cameron’s best.
Based quite distinctly on the Japanese manga Gunnm (translated to Battle Angel Alita in English), Alita follows its titular character, played by Roza Salazar, as she awakens in a post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk future with no memory of who she is or how she came to be. When Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds her and restores her power, Alita decides to do some further digging into her past, and she discovers that what she comes from is far more extraordinary than Ido has led her to believe.
With heavy influences on some of the best genre, cyberpunk films (Tron, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there’s a scene here that’s right out of the first Blade Runner), Alita weaves its story spectacularly, crafting an epic sci-fi opera with just enough human drama to make the plot satisfying, while also keeping enough of those trademark action sequences we were promised in the trailer. And oh, boy, how thrilling those action sequences are. This is truly an experience that has to be seen on the big screen–from the sound design to the colorful, lacquered set pieces, to a stunning work of visual effects on the robotic Alita’s cybernetic body parts.
The film truly feels like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It draws heavily on the manga it’s based on for several scenes. This isn’t a spoiler, because you’ve seen it in the latest trailer, but the iconic game of motorball from the original manga is used in the film–and those moments are some of the most thrilling action sequences in recent memory. Not only from the way they’re designed, but to the pulse-pounding stunt choreography that calls to mind reading the initial manga as a child. The visual effects in general are a revelation–not just for Alita, but for all the other cyborgs she faces.
This movie is a visual spectacle at the level of Aquaman or Avengers: Infinity War (I didn’t really enjoy the latter, but even I have to admit it was a feast for the eyes, especially on a big IMAX screen). I saw it in 3D, and that is clearly the way the film was intended to be seen. The 3D is some of the best I’ve seen in years, and one can only think that’s because James Cameron is involved. Not only does almost every scene have incredible depth–for most of the movie, I felt like I could get up and walk around the world of the movie, and that’s high praise for any blockbuster.
Rosa Salazar gives a career-defining performance as Alita, working harder to get past her CGI eyes (they weren’t nearly as distracting in the film as they were in the trailers) and portray a well-rounded, dynamic lead character. The script supports her, and though she’s asked to deliver a few cheesy lines, Salazar shows off an impressive amount of range as an actress that I don’t think we’ve ever seen from her before. She was so good that I wish they were shooting a sequel right now–I want to see all the Alita films, until Salazar is old and gray and unable to play the part. She also does a fantastic job with her action sequences, effortlessly pulling off stunt jumps and twists on the same level as the most thrilling scenes in the first Kingsman movie.
The rest of the cast does a great job, as well. Not a single cast member did a bad acting job, and I’m looking forward to seeing all of them in other roles going forward. Keean Johnson makes a surprisingly interesting and real love interest–I truly bought the dynamic between he and Alita, and that’s largely thanks to both the actors. Mahershala Ali is wonderful as the spiteful, vengeful villain and the leader of Motorball (he’s playing a futuristic variation of Cottonmouth, his character from the first season of the now-cancelled Luke Cage, but he’s so good at it that I honestly didn’t mind), while Christoph Waltz brings nuance and pathos to his performance as the doctor. Some other standouts: Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Connelly, Lana Condor, Ed Skrein, Jorge Lindeborg Jr., and Eiza Gonzalez all do a nice job, both with their action sequences but also with the quieter moments. With the characters and the scope, a truly tangible world was created, and each actor helped sell that beautifully.
The score also stands out. It’s Junkie XL, of course, so that’s to be expected, but he does a riveting job here, giving not only badass tunes for Alita during the film’s many action sequences, but balancing out the quieter moments and using the score to give certain scenes more emotional weight. How good is it? Well, immediately after the film’s end, I ran to iTunes to see if it was available for purchase.
In conclusion, Alita: Battle Angel is the first good manga adaptation in the West that we’ve had in a long time. With a passionate behind-the-camera team, the manga translates into a wonderful flick that not only perfectly captures the essence of the stories it’s based on, but heightens the material to something truly captivating. I truly, truly hope we get a sequel!