Film Review – ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

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An impressive visual spectacle held back somewhat by an overfamiliar story, ‘Alita’ is nonetheless a game-changing marvel, filled with seamless effects work, outstanding action scenes and impressive work from Oscar-winners Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly. But its greatest achievement is Alita herself, as Rosa Salazar delivers a breakout performance.

Based on the popular graphic novel series by Yukito Kishiro, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is the love child of ‘Sin City’ director Robert Rodriguez and ‘Avatar’ mastermind James Cameron, and so arrives in cinemas with some serious genre credentials.

Set in the year 2563 and the aftermath of a terrible war known only as ‘The Fall’, it centres on Alita, a cyborg salvaged from a junkyard metropolis by the brilliant but enigmatic scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz). But from the moment she opens her eyes, Alita finds herself on a quest to discover the past that now eludes her, a mission that will see her become a friend (and an enemy) to those who stalk the streets of Iron City.

As a visual experience, ‘Alita’ is undoubtedly a delight, with the VFX team at Weta Digital raising the bar yet again by creating a dystopian world that is beautifully detailed, and flawlessly employs motion capture, effects work and energetic camera work to produce something quite special.

From the brutal, remorseless Motorball sequences (imagine Quidditch meets The Hunger Games via the Olympics) to the stunning flashback sequences and tense final showdowns, Alita is filled with memorable action sequences that are particularly suited for the big screen. It wears its influences on its sleeve, with many a nod to Blade Runner in particular, but Iron City is definitely a character in its own right, one whose streets and back alleys we’ve only begun to explore and definitely deserve to revisit (if and when the anticipated sequel arrives).

But the most impressive aspect of the film is the depth of realism and emotive expression on show from Alita herself, as Salazar skilfully channels her childlike innocence and her inimitable fighting style with flair. It’s a delicate balance, but Alita remains likable throughout, even if her character does overcome hurdles and bypass obstacles with a little too much ease.

This is ultimately the film’s greatest flaw, as it sometimes struggles with a central character that is so clearly head and shoulders above those around her. Despite the peril she frequently finds herself in, she often shrugs off her challenges with little problem, which ultimately results in an unsatisfying conclusion that answers several questions but fails to hit the emotional resonances felt elsewhere in the film.

Both Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly do well with their roles, even if their characters occasionally make decisions that seem strange and out of the blue, servicing the plot rather than arising naturally. But Connelly in particular lays good groundwork for future explorations, and it’s likely that many of these weaknesses will be corrected in upcoming sequels.

This is because ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ introduces us to a fascinating universe, and much like its protagonist spends a good portion of the film trying to figure out just what it is. It gets there before the end, and with the promise of its first instalment and a wealth of story potential waiting to be mined, it will be interesting to see where Cameron and Rodriguez go with it next.

Alex Straker

Sci-Fi, Action | USA, 2019 | 12A | 6th February 2019 (UK) | Twentieth Century Fox | Dir.Robert Rodriguez | Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Ed Skrein, Jennifer Connolly, Keean Johnson, Jackie Earle Haley