James Cameron’s fingerprints are evident on the cyborg action romance Alita: Battle Angel; although Robert Rodriguez (Machete) directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island).
The film is based on a manga series by Japanese comic book artist Yukito Kishiro. Originally announced in 2003, production on and release of the film were repeatedly delayed due to Cameron’s work on Avatar and its sequels. Alita is a wild ride, but one well worth taking.
It’s the year 2563 and Earth devastated by a catastrophic war, known as “The Fall”, 300 years earlier. While scouting the junkyard metropolis of Iron City, cyborg scientist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a dissembled cyborg with an intact human brain. He rebuilds the cyborg as a girl who doesn’t have any recollections of her past, and names her “Alita” after his deceased daughter. Alita (a motion capture version of the actor Rosa Salazar) befriends a teenage boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson), who dreams of moving to the wealthy sky city of Zalem. Hugo introduces her to the competitive sport of Motorball, a gladiatorial track battle in which cyborgs fight to the death.
Alita – who is curious about the world and keen to discover more about it and about herself – uncovers a secret second life that Dr Ido lives. Alita has two sides also – one wide-eyed and kind; the other an instinctive protector and killing machine. The latter comes to the fore when she or her loved ones are threatened.
I built a genuine affinity for Alita – part human, part machine – who cares deeply but also knows how to kick some serious butt. The romance between Alita and Hugo drives the film, notwithstanding her remarkable skill set, which she uses to great effect. The action sequences are full on, but I’m delighted to say – for once – not overused. And the movie benefits as a result.
Alita: Battle Angel also marks the most sympathetic characterisation I can recall for Christoph Waltz. His restraint is a sharp contrast to the vicious roles that made him a household name – like Inglourious Basterds. In this context he gives Dr Ido depth and humanity in a world where there’s a severe shortage of both. Keean Johnson’s smile, good looks and six-pack help create the empathetic role of Hugo, who also has a dark side. Mahershala Ali (Green Book) is Vector, an evil ringleader; while Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) plays Chiren, Ido’s ex-wife – a doctor in her own right and a figure torn by the death of their daughter.
The set and production design are most impressive.
So, there’s much to appreciate in Alita: Battle Angel. It surprised me with its combination of technical brilliance and compelling story arc.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali
Release Date: 14 February 2019
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.