These days, when I first learn about a new film in production, it’s usually through social media, or maybe the news. It’s not often that I first learn about a film from seeing the trailer in the cinema, or that the trailer quickly convinces me that I should go and see it. But that’s how it was with Alita: Battle Angel; although I had never heard of the film or its manga source material before (even though it was being co-produced and co-written by no less than James Cameron, and directed by Sin City’s Robert Rodriguez), I was immediately drawn to the first teaser: the action looked fun, and the main character looked intriguing, right down to her overly large eyes. After being put back a couple of times, Alita: Battle Angel is finally out in cinemas, and I’m happy to say that it fulfilled the expectations created by the teaser.
In the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world of 2563, scientist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg in the form of a teenage girl. Repairing her and restoring her to life, he names her Alita (Rosa Salazar) and comes to see her as his daughter. Alita has no memory of her past life, until one night when she gets into a life-threatening battle and has a flash of recollection: she was once a soldier, fighting in the war that decimated Earth. Determined to learn more and embrace her true identity, Alita seeks out further conflict, which proves easy to find as malevolent forces seem determined to destroy her and unlock her secrets.
The action and the visuals are definitely the stand-out aspect of the film. In a world where CGI and special effects are taken for granted, what matters is how you use them, and Alita uses them very well. The world of the film is full of variety, with rich, well-populated backgrounds, and cyborgs ranging from people with simple robot arms to more disturbing creations that are almost completely machine. You never feel lost or confused in the fight scenes, which see Alita and her enemies using a range of weapons from swords to metal tentacles. The scenes involving the fast-paced local sport, Motorball, bring back memories of the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer. Alita herself, created through CGI and motion capture, looks great; I personally felt that her giant eyes added to her charm and made her look just the right amount of alien, without straying too far into the Uncanny Valley.
But an action film’s entertainment value is limited without a good story, and characters the audience cares about, alongside the cool set pieces. Alita delivers in those areas too: the story is well-paced, never dragging, and the titular heroine is easy to love. Played excellently throughout by Rosa Salazar, Alita has an endearing, sometimes naive charm in times of peace, and deadly determination in times of conflict. I also liked seeing Christoph Waltz playing a good guy for once, his character trying to find a balance between keeping his adopted daughter safe and giving her what she needs, managing to be more than the cliche overprotective father. Among the side characters, Ed Skrein as the cyborg bounty hunter Zapan easily has the best screen presence.
Some elements could certainly have been handled better, like the villains, which mostly don’t make enough of an impression – not even Mahershala Ali in a crime boss role similar to the one he handled so well in Netflix’s Luke Cage. Perhaps what’s holding them back is the repeated reminder that the true bad guy is a puppetmaster lurking behind the scenes, but we don’t learn enough about the character in question to fully appreciate his role. That links to another problem with the film: much of the story feels unresolved by the end, apparently relying on sequels that are by no means guaranteed.
I enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel very much as an action/sci-fi film – it provided a satisfying if not exceptional experience on every level. Rating: 4/5.