Alita: Battle Angel
James Cameron is known for creating vast alien worlds and situating fun popcorn movies within them. While Robert Rodriguez directed Cameron’s script for Alita: Battle Angel, which itself is an adaptation of the manga series Gunnm, there’s no mistaking Cameron’s touch on this attempted blockbuster.
Taking place on Earth, Alita is set in year 2563, which is 300 years after the great war, referred to as “The Fall.” This war devastated the planet and left civilization relegated to two main spaces: grimy Iron City, or the massive ship floating about the city called Zalem. The film begins with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) scavenging through a junkyard filled with Zalem waste. When he spots the still-living bust of a young female cyborg, he takes it home and fixes it up. Ido specializes in prosthetics, which are in high demand in Iron City. It seems like every other person is either augmented or in need of some medical enhancement just to get by. Survival is hard enough down there, and Ido is trying to help however he can.
After some tinkering, the bust, along with a new body, awakens with no real memory. The cyborg body is graceful and beautifully decorated all over. It’s clear that an extra degree of care and love went into designing this body for the previous wearer. Ido names this now-awake cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar, through CGI and motion capture). Together, they explore Iron City and try to get her memory back.
This trope of a beautiful amnesiac young woman being reliant upon a father figure and an inevitable love interest (Keean Johnson) to teach her all about civilization, love and life has been done so many times it’s a cliché. For that matter, nothing in Alita is especially original. Alita herself might as well be Leeloo from The Fifth Element. The major sport that rules Iron City is basically Rollerball, and Iron City itself is a mashup of the futuristic dystopias from Blade Runner and The Zero Theorem. Alita seems less keen on paying homage to the hollowed ancestors of science fiction, and more interested in using easily accessible shorthand to cut out a lot of explanation about how society ended up this way, so that we can focus on the good stuff – the battles!
Alita wastes no time in getting to some grand cyborg fight scenes, and these honestly make the film a delight, despite the lame romance and silly personal quests. The cyborg designs are innovative, often gorgeous, and always deadly. Each cyborg Alita fights is not only capable of inflicting great damage on her humanoid body, they’re cocky enough to think that she stands no chance. However, Alita deserves far more credit than they give her, and we, in turn, get to see what each of them is capable of. These numerous fight scenes are shot in such a way that there’s no ambiguity about where characters are, or which ones have which weapons. Too often in other movies, quick-and-dirty skirmishes like this are framed with shaky cameras and edited too quickly to ever get fully invested in the action, but Alita shows all those inferior films how it should be done.
Thankfully, Alita somehow appears to know that the best things going for it are the cyborg designs and the fights. The film suffers when it focuses too heavily on the politics of Iron City or on Alita’s ridiculous crush, but it’s easy enough to let those scenes come and go quickly and just pay attention to the ass-kicking.