Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Posted in Reviews by - March 06, 2019
Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Future-set sci-fi action based on Yukito Kishiro’s popular manga, brought to the screen with complete CGI, motion-capture fascination by James Cameron. Never one for subtlety, Cameron’s blockbuster visuals overwhelm the screen, leaving the actors to inject as much nuance as possible into a lacking script (stand-out performances include Connelly as a stoic ice queen, Ali as a powerful cipher for a higher power, and Skrein as a Cockney samurai cyborg). If anything, the CGI is too distracting. Rosa Salazar’s Alita is a composite machine-girl with a human brain powered by super-advanced nanotechnology, sporting big obtrusive eyes which resemble an anime character. When she talks, there’s a distinct creakiness in the mo-cap which lifts the viewer out of the drama; particularly during the sequences in which she develops feelings for a loveable teenage rogue, played by Keean Johnson. Much of the inspiration for its dystopian world-building is also glaringly obvious, from Rollerball to Blade Runner to Ghost in the Shell, not to mention a heavy slice of Cameron’s own oeuvre, particularly Aliens and Avatar. But if Cameron is aiming for IMAX screens, director Robert Rodriguez is focusing more on the grindhouse, and the film is constantly battling between these two extremes. There is a wild glee to the dicey, crunchy, excellent action scenes which show how Rodriguez can still beguile an audience – even if the audience are still the same adolescents who were floored by his R-rated exploits in films like Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City. The fight scenes don’t hold back, pushing the limits of its PG-13 rating, but at least the weird, violent and shocking tone seems to remain true to the source.

The film is set in a two-tiered metropolis in the 26th century. The elites live in a towering city in the sky; the working classes fight for metal down below – a literal and physical dumping ground for the rich. The lower classes are kept distracted by a game called Motorball, in which braying audiences watch souped-up cyborgs smash into each other at high-speed. Christoph Waltz plays a part-time cybernetic Dr Frankenstein fixing limbs onto patients using junk he finds in the tip, spending his evenings as a bounty hunter for spare change. Upon the discovery of a human female head, he promptly stitches it onto a body and creates a new young daughter, replacing his murdered biological one. It turns out that ‘Alita’ is actually a bad-ass indestructible super-killer, proficient in an ancient form of martial arts, which draws the attention of the elites who start to feel threatened, and soon she is targeted by every creepy steampunk freak-show in town. The film follows her struggle to remember her true identity while dealing with all the usual teenage hang-ups, like cute boys, social anxiety, and saving the world against giant murderous robots with extendable chain claws. Large parts of the story feel like extraneous detailing, hinting at a much wider narrative which may (or may not) be settled in future instalments. Whether that actually proves to be the case, the added convolution only acts to disrupt what should have been a perfectly simple, mindless slice of punching and smashing. Enjoyable, yes, but not essential.

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