I’ve been hearing about Alita: Battle Angel for almost two decades. What originally began as a James Cameron project circa 2003 has since evolved into Robert Rodriguez big jump into true blockbuster filmmaking and the potential beginning of a new franchise. The film opens in the futuristic world of tomorrow where androids live with humans and humans are part machine. In a trash pile, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of an android which he brings back to life and names Alita. Played by Rosa Salazar, Alita is cognitive machine with no memory of where she came from or who she is. From this moment forward, much like Alita, we experience the new world created here.
It’s made clear from the massive opening shot that this isn’t Rodriguez as we have known previously. Having been the Rebel Without a Crew, wearing every hat from director to composer to chef, here he just wears the one, Director. What he gives us is a much more polished version of anything we have seen from him prior and in some way it feels as if he’s making a Cameron film like Cameron would.
Like many of Cameron’s other films, the film balances social and ecological issues wrapped in a larger story of a singular character being the chosen one to save humanity. The film rests almost entirely of Rosa Salazar’s mocap performance which is absolutely excellent here. Equal parts charming, innocent and absolutely terrifyingly BAD ASS. One thing for sure is that as Alita comes into her own and learns who she truly is, it’s hard not to get excited about where the story is headed and Salazar’s emotion bleeds right through the mocap.
For as stylish and fun as Rodriguez previous work has been, often times the visuals here seem like they could have been manufactured by any director. They feel a bit too safe. And that brings me to my biggest complaint, the tone. Often times drifting into pure Children’s film acting and drama which shifts quickly into an action sequence packed with violence and death. The film definitely wants to play to all ages and types but by doing this has that awkward feeling of being too soft or too hard. What remains Rodriguez strength is those violent interactions with characters and set pieces they just are watered down by the somewhat cartoony villains and dramatic set-ups.
When the film hits it’s stride of being action heavy, it works. It works really well. Through the world of Iron City, Rodriguez takes us through interesting and massive action set pieces which continue to build upon each other as the film progresses. It’s fun and even has a few moments where cheering seems appropriate but we are left feeling these moments might have worked better if the characters would’ve had more room to develop.
As the final act burns towards the final minutes and we begin to cheer on Alita, the film slams on it’s brakes leaving us cold with an unsatisfying cliffhanger. This IS a franchise whether we as viewers want it to be or not. For as much I was absorbed into the world and the character of Alita, I was just as quickly taken aback by it’s lack of vision and sincerity for telling a singular story. I was ready for another 25-30 minutes in this world with this character. It FELT like we had that much more time left but maybe the marketing team saw a great opportunity and took it.
Much like Cameron’s Avatar this film has been touted as being game changing for science fiction. I’m not quite certain that it is wholly game changing but I did want more from the world. The visuals and world building are second only to Avatar but strangely it feels like we’ve been here before.
While I’m certain we will be given at least one more film with Alita, the conclusion here seems similar to that of Fantastic Beasts 2 having built to an unsatisfying conclusion with a promise of a more complete and better story coming, I can’t but wonder if audiences will care enough to return for a second helping when we weren’t completely satisfied with this first installment.