Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Robert Rodriguez directs Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali in this sci-fi romance where a cybernetic warrior beauty masters future sport, bounty hunting and teenage boys.

Like Bohemian Rhapsody this is proof that you don’t need a good script to make a great blockbuster. The dialogue clunks, the characters have all the complexity of rats in lab mazes and the plot suddenly develops at a rate of knots just when you want it to tie all of its loose ends off in a neat bow. Though, hands up who is buying a ticket to Alita on the promise of well developed leads or tidiness? No… didn’t think so. So let’s look at what this big hulking beast delivers.

For one: a brightly lit vision of the far future. The Manga comic world Rodriguez and producer James Cameron have brought to life is dense and rich. Thick with humans with robot arms, robots with human faces and other automatons bustling about. It is a film busy with visuals that somehow allows the soapy drama and vibrant action to play out uninterrupted in the foreground. As Alita falls in love, upgrades and picks fights, we see queues for border entry, latino street market culture and patchwork fantasy tech just exist in the frame – painting an Earth 500 years away that demands rewatches and detailed exploration.

The movie is pleasingly violent. Though sometimes the action is a little forced (I assume an extended version will reveal why Waltz’s Dr Ido and Jackie Earl Hayley’s Grewishka rock up at the Hunter Warrior hang out together) yet when Alita gets into her swing you are caught up in it all. This is not a franchise starter bothered about preserving characters (four leads die in the last 10 minutes – some not for the first time) and even Alita suffers brutal sustained damage. She’s crunched and severed and sliced up in both the bounty hunting street fights and the impressive Motorball gladiator battles. The unfocused plot does mean we get a little less Motorball madness than really makes sense. Yet the one-on-one face-offs over personal beefs fill that void. Alita’s “Fuck your mercy” comeback belongs in an 18 certificated film, a lot of the carnage does. If you like gory (albeit bloodless) kills and horrifically designed kill machines (Ed Skrien’s Inca roboback… phwoar!) then Alita is the epic for you.

In fact, the biggest part of the fun in Alita is trying to unpick what is Cameron and what is Rodriguez. Cameron certainly brings a sense of wonder owned by him and Spielberg almost exclusively. Alita waking in her new body and wandering Iron City have a relaxed patience lost on most modern filmmakers. Yet you’ve seen these time out moments of amazement and fascination (mirroring the audience) in The Abyss or Titanic or even Avatar. Cameron’s raison d’être is taking his audience and protagonists to rich, new worlds and allowing these strange environments to evolve the characters into new self-determined others. Rodriguez adds the detailing. He might not have been allowed the production scale needed without Cameron’s oversight, so he works diligently colouring in the gaps. The crowds feel like the extras from a Rodriquez flick… X 10000. The costumes, foods and colours of this world belong to the maker of Desperado, From Dusk Til Dawn and Spy Kids. Cameron has never seen a moment he didn’t want to maxisize (admirable) but Rodriguez manages to make the limited courtyard street game and alleyway fights just as kinetic as the grander set pieces later. Neither are creatives bothered about subtlety of dialogue or difficult grey area characters. Their styles and sensibilities chime together nicely.

Do we care about Alita with her mo-capped body and big wet eyes? She’s a strange character. A middle aged man’s idea of what a young woman should be like. For many scenes Alita, with her sexless innocence and memory wiped ignorance of the real world, comes across as THAT GIRL. Crazy! Loco! The kind who stares at you unflinchingly as she holds your hand, climbs into your window to watch you sleep, takes her beating heart out and offers it to you as a gift. When her bland paramour Hugo suggest she could “rip off his arm and beat him with the wet ” (classic James Cameron’s trademark smalltalk), she giggles girlishly yet maniacally at the truth of this assessment. We shouldn’t really like this unguarded, obsessive death machine, should we? The intention is to show a pure heart in a callous, dehumanised world. It works, they get away with it. We want sleek, graceful, lovestruck, awesome Alita to beat all-comers. But Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Rodriguez use some pretty strong writing swipes to get us there. There’s a hurried bluntness about Alita that restricts it from being a classic, yet there’s more than enough wow and pow pow to fill a Saturday night.

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