Alita: Battle Angel
2 hours 2 minutes, PG-13 for ample cyborg ultraviolence (gore doesn’t count as long as it’s wires and not blood)
Fair Value of Alita: Battle Angel- $8.00 Crunchy popcorn, even if the oil’s synthetic. Lavish visuals and an imaginative world with an underwhelming core, like an old computer with a flashy casemod. You’ll remember the shots but forget the plot.
Is this film worth my time? Are you a plot person or a visual person? Do you go to films for the story, or for the art? If you’re going for the former, then it’s skippable; if you’re going for spectacle, then it’s a great choice. In this regards, Alita is reminiscent of the Wachowski’s 2008 Speed Racer, or, more recently, Aquaman (however Alita is much better than Aquaman).
Running Laps in the Uncanny Valley: Alita is one of the projects of James Cameron, the Satan of Development Hell. It’s taken Rodriguez and Cameron 16 years to finally get this adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga series out, only for it to be dumped out in February, the junkyard of cinema. It’s been under-marketed by 20th Century Fox, because Fox hates science fiction (see also: Alien 3, Serenity, Idiocracy).
Which is appropriate for a movie about a girl found in a junkyard. Iron City is a wasteland built around the dumping ground of a giant, exclusive sky city called Zollum. While picking through the trash one day, Dr. Ido (Christopher Waltz) finds the shattered torso of Alita (Rosa Salazar), apparently dumped from Zollum. Reviving her and restoring her, standard issue chosen one last warrior of lost something or other ensues.
Zollum/Iron City is your standard young adult fare: privileged 1%er utopia city controlling grimdark post-apocalyptic city through robots, gladiatorial sports, and Mahershala Ali. Complications to the plot begin with Alita’s love at first data prompt encounter with Hugo (Keaan Johnson).
Love in the Time of Transhumanism
Another simultaneous strength and weakness of the film is the digital palette. The film abounds with strange and bizarre cyborgs- human faces hanging on wheeled, multi-armed mechanical goliaths, with characters getting maimed and dismembered repeatedly in the violence.
On the one side, it’s bracing and radical- a truly post-human future, where bodies are merely another interchangeable consumer product, and cyborgs are treated like NASCAR. But for audiences who are not science fiction geeks, it may just look like a horde of badly drawn Robocops. This is going to be a polarizing film, both within the fandom and with the mass audience.
Director Robert Rodriguez and Producer James Cameron make a good pairing here, correcting for each other’s foibles. With Cameron alone, the love story would have been insufferable; Rodriguez has always had a talent for indelible action shots. Without Cameron, the film would lack self-reflection and heart; it would be just as liquid and plastic as the later Spy Kids sequels, or Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Much like Speed Racer, another technical tour de force, Alita is likely to be overlooked by American audiences. It’s a case study in why we’re served endless reheated franchises of pre-existing American pop culture- because the mass audience pushes away different or unusual novelties like a toddler rejecting new foods without ever tasting them.
That being said, it’s also a true victim of development hell. If this had debuted in 2004/2005, we’d be talking about it as one of the tent poles of 00’s summer blockbuster fare. As it stands, it’s been eclipsed by the stories and franchises that were inspired by Alita (Blonkamp’s Elysium, Hunger Games)…Alita: Battle Angel is fun, but it’s the wrong time, wrong market, wrong year.