ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (directed by Robert Rodriguez, 122 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC If you got into Anime in the 90’s, you were undoubtedly indoctrinated with Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel, the bleak cyberpunk love story cribbed in equal parts from Blade Runner and The Terminator. Hollywood’s take on this animated classic hits the big screen this week thanks to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), who took on the project that has been in gestation under James Cameron (The Terminator/Avatar) for almost two decades, who also penned the script. Alita takes the larger than life worlds Cameron is known for, and populates them with the charming rogues gallery you’ve come to expect from the Mexican filmmaker. It’s an odd mix for sure, but one that has Rodriguez turning out his best film since Sin City.
Battle Angel takes place in a distant post-apocalyptic future known as “After The Fall” where all that’s left of civilization is Zalem, the last of the floating cities, and Iron City, the factory city/dumping ground beneath it. One day while scavenging through the trash of Zalem, Dr. Ido (a cyberdoctor played by Christoph Waltz) finds the still living “Core” of a young cyborg girl with amnesia. Once he places her in a new body, Alita (Rosa Salazar) finds herself in an unfamiliar city and time where she falls for local Motorball mechanic Hugo (Keean Johnson) whose dream is to one day make it to Zalem. As Alita begins to piece together her past, we discover that nothing around her is quite as it seems in Iron City or up in Zalem.
Alita’s only fault is that it sticks so very close to the source with the only alterations being the early introduction of Motorball, and the fact we get some much needed exposition sooner. This helps put the world into some much needed context as Rodriguez takes what was originally less than an hour of animation and expands it into a two plus hour feature film. Cameron and Rodriguez have lean into the action, which is their forte, but leave behind some of the subtext of the story that was basically ripped off by Elysium. The original animation used the floating city metaphor to dig a little deeper into the plights of the “haves and the have nots” and how Hugo was ultimately devoured by his greed. Battle Angel is not quite as heavy handed, but that’s because it’s used to set up another film, whereas the original animation felt finite and almost too satisfying with its two episode conclusion.
As a fan, I was pleasantly surprised by Alita: Battle Angel, and given the budget behind this film, the decision to dial back the nihilism of the source material makes sense. Rodriguez has also helped inject some much needed humor and heart into Cameron’s prose by making Ido’s and Alita’s father/daughter relationship the glue that holds the messy narrative together. The film is definitely the most paternal and uncreepy Waltz has been in a VERY long time. The film’s reverent approach to the source material, warts and all, is simultaneously the film’s biggest strength and weakness, but its otherworldly visuals are a worthy spectacle that need to be seen on IMAX or 3D if possible.