Main cast: Rosa Salazar (Alita), Christoph Waltz (Dr Dyson Ido), Jennifer Connelly (Chiren), Mahershala Ali (Vector), Ed Skrein (Zapan), Jackie Earle Haley (Grewishka), Keean Johnson (Hugo), Michelle Rodriguez (Gelda), Eiza González (Nyssiana), Lana Condor (Koyomi), Jorge Lendeborg Jr (Tanji), and Idara Victor (Nurse Gerhad)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
I was initially unsure as to whether I even want to see Alita: Battle Angel because the trailer scares me. The way they made Rosa Salazar’s eyes and face look more doll-like creeps me out, and I am sadly not weeabo enough to go all moe over what is clearly designed to be everyone’s best waifu. Having watched it, I can now say that I am kind of glad that I did, although this movie isn’t a direct winner out of the gate.
I am also unfamiliar with the source material, and therefore, I don’t carry any baggage into the cinema – I am not the person to ask as to how faithful this movie is to the manga series of the same name. Mind you, I still catch flak after all these years for liking Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, so that should tell you about my taste in general.
So, this movie. Set in 2563, Earth is supposedly in ruins after a devastating war between what seems like an army of creepy girl-doll cyborgs from Mars and the humans on Earth led to the collapse of nearly all the sky cities of Earth in an event called the Fall. Only one sky city remains – Zalem. Zalem is the domain of the rich and wealthy, run by a mysterious figure called Nova. Below Zalem is a sprawling junkyard metropolis called the Iron City, populated by people who aren’t worthy of being relocated to the sky city. As you can guess, Iron City is a lawless place ruled by crime bosses like Vector who in turn answers to Nova. The closest one has to a police force in Iron City are the bounty hunters called Hunter-Warriors, who track down those wanted by the law – determined by Nova, of course – and turn in the heads of those targets in exchange for money. Also in Iron City is the Motorball tournament, which sees cyborgs and cybernetically-enhanced folks trying to damage and even kill one another as they compete to be the first to seize and shoot a spiked ball into a hole in the wall.
Thrust into this setting is Alita. She comes to be when Dr Dyson Ido, a talented cyborg surgeon who is reduced to eking a living in Iron City after his fall from grace from Zalem, discovers a still-living cyborg head while scavenging in the junkyard. You see, cyborgs are made by transplanting the human brain into a metallic body, and in this particular case, the brain in the head is still functioning. He brings the head back to his clinic and construct a new cyborg using the body he has designed for his late daughter. This cyborg, whom he calls Alita also after his daughter, has no memory of her past, but she soon rebels against Ido’s determination to keep her from being anything more than a hapless teenage girl. She is confident that she is more than that, especially when she discovers that she knows a form of martial arts that has supposed to have become extinct in the last 300 years.
As Alita discovers her foster father’s double life, falls in love with a teenage boy from the wrong side of the road called Hugo, and uncovers her past, she of course falls under the radar of Nova, who then orders Vector to send a passel of cyborgs as well as more human minions to bring him Alita’s heart. Surprise, the more human minions include Chiren, Ido’s estranged wife who is also a talented cyborg surgeon… and Hugo. Although in Hugo’s case, it’s more like the lad is being manipulated to set Alita up for the fall.
Now, the good things first. Alita isn’t a creepy girl-child character despite her appearance, thank goodness, and the script actually sets her up to be a relatable, lost, but spunky teenage girl that kicks ass super hard. She is naïve and idealistic, understandably so given her circumstances, but she’s not entirely goody-goody as much as she is determined to go through great lengths for the people she cares for, sometimes blindly in the case of Hugo. Still, this movie is just the beginning, and Alita undergoes ample character development as the movie progresses. She isn’t a heroine or savior as much as she is just a survivor who, by the end of the movie, has many reasons to tear Nova apart with her bare hands, and I like this. It’s a refreshing change from all the wholesome goodness espoused by the superhero movies that have been inundating the cinemas nowadays, but without pretentious angst or edgelord mood swings to make things annoying.
Alita’s relationship with Ido is not without its ups and downs as Ido is overprotective to a suffocating degree, but it is also unexpectedly believable and poignant at times. I even find myself warming up to the idea of Hugo and Alita – it’s more of a case of teenagers’ first crush rather than true love in motion, but Ms Salazar and Keean Johnson have some believable chemistry.
But the star of the movie are the action sequences. There is an exhilarating energy to these sequences that are just breathtaking to watch. While fast and frenetic, these scenes are also coherent, and hence, I savor every dismemberment, decapitation, and more. Alita: Battle Angel is one of the more exciting fight movie I’ve seen in a while, and I swear that are moments when I actually hold my breath because the actions on the big screen are really that edge-of-seat fun to watch. My only complaint is how sometimes the blows seem to lack weight behind them, and as such, Alita sometimes come off like tapping her opponents instead. Nonetheless, this movie is a really, really thrilling spectacle.
Yikes, however, at the story in general. As a coming-of-age or origins movie, it’s alright, but the villains aren’t very memorable, and Nova, especially, doesn’t make much of an impact for a supposedly all-knowing arch nemesis sort. He lacks any memorable motivation other than “I want Alita dead because… just because!” Also, the final battle is a complete letdown after all that build up. Also, some characters like Chiren have room to grow to become more memorable characters, but they are just sort of here for plot purposes.
Oh, and Iron City looks very clean and peaceful for a supposedly unlawful place. I have a hard time believing that people are miserable living here. While I appreciate the expensive work in generating the gorgeous scenery in this movie, everything feels too clean and tidy to be taken seriously.
Still, Alita: Battle Angel is worth at least one look for its overall adrenaline overload. The action sequences are really great, and the CGIs are gorgeous to behold. The story is quite the clunker and there are some really awful clunker lines here and there, but on the whole, this is a very good example of a visually striking, thrilling roller-coaster ride that one will realize isn’t really that great only after the ride is over. The ride itself… no complaints about it being boring, that’s for sure.