By Preston Wilder
The eyes have it. Alita (Rosa Salazar, with some CGI enhancement) has remarkably large brown eyes, giving her the air of an earnest child. She falls in love like a schoolgirl, with a boy named Hugo (“Hugo…” she sighs, watching him depart on his futuristic bike), and gets all a-flutter at the taste of chocolate. To be fair, she’s never had it before, having been found by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) on a scrapyard in the 26th-century metropolis of Iron City, “300 years after the Fall”. Alita is just a cyborg head at that point – but the good doctor grafts the head on the body of his late daughter, giving her life. No, that’s not creepy at all.
That’s par for the course in Alita: Battle Angel, an impressive yet somehow lacking sci-fi actioner where bodies are constantly being cut up and patched back together. The film has a swanky pedigree: not only did it cost a reported $200 million, not only do the cast have four Oscars between them, but the director is Robert Rodriguez of Sin City fame, and the writer-producer is James Cameron who… well, we all know who James Cameron is. Cameron’s always been drawn by damaged or mismatched bodies: The Terminator had one of the first movie cyborgs – a mash-up of flesh and metal – while the hero in Avatar sought release from his own crippled body. Alita is another such mash-up, “the face of an angel and a body built for battle”.
The film works better in the first half, when Alita still has a vulnerable girl’s body; the mismatch is stronger. Something is lost when she’s reunited with her ‘body built for battle’ about halfway through, or maybe it’s the realisation that she’s had her coming-of-age and we still have an hour to go (the film is way overlong). “I’m tired of it! He just wants me to be his perfect little girl!” huffs Alita in the early stages, annoyed by Ido’s silly rules like any rebellious teenager – then she swings into action, beating up a trio of street thugs, and it’s all quite amusing. Ido concludes that she must be a war machine made by URM (the United Republics of Mars) before the Fall, and Alita rolls her eyes. “So I’m 300 years old?” she teases, doing a little-old-lady voice for a joke. Ido looks at her: “Sweetheart, you are,” he replies simply. As awakenings go, it’s a satisfying one.
The action is always superb, but there’s just too much of it – including three (3) different fights with the same hulking monster – and the rest is often half-baked. “Whose body is this? Who am I?” cries Alita (echoes of Ghost in the Shell) – but the answers to those questions, like the sinister “sky city” of Zalem that looms over the Iron City plebs like a broken promise, will presumably be found in the next instalment. Zalem has echoes of Young Adult fiction (and films like The Hunger Games), that whole concept of a cold, aloof aristocracy calling the shots, but Alita – based on a Japanese manga comic – doesn’t offer very much world-building, unless you count the class of ‘hunter warriors’ who operate like vigilantes against the general lawlessness. They don’t do much, but they do have names like ‘McTeague the Dogmaster’ so I guess that’s something.
“It’s a harsh world,” Hugo warns Alita, but it doesn’t seem all that harsh. Rodriguez departs from the usual murky Blade Runner visuals in giving this dystopia a bright, sunlit look – a refreshing change, lending a touch of a kids’ TV series. (There’s actually a moment, right after Alita finds her real, URM body, when the camera pulls back, the music swells and the film cuts to black, that feels exactly like the end of a TV episode; you half-expect credits to start rolling.) None of this is bad, necessarily, in fact it’s quite likeable. Alita: Battle Angel might’ve been a winner at 90 minutes and more of the winsome banter of the first half – but Cameron has bigger fish to fry (the ending clearly signals a sequel), even throwing in a touch of Titanic at the climax. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it doesn’t really work.
Anything else? A game called Motorball, played on skates, whose only rule is apparently to get the ball by any means necessary. The regal presence of Jennifer Connelly (wasted, as usual) with a bindi-like ‘Mark of Zalem’ on her forehead. Oh, and of course Alita’s ongoing crush on Hugo. “Can a cyborg love a human?” she wonders, the kind of weighty question that’s just filling up space in such a weightless movie – then again, maybe what Alita: Battle Angel needed most was precisely more emotional investment, the better to go with those big brown eyes. Less battle, more angel.
DIRECTED BY Robert Rodriguez
STARRING Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly
SCI FI ACTION
US 2019 122 mins