Nobody who follows movies in any sort of detail thought “Alita: Battle Angel” would ever make the big screen. Long a pet project of cinema juggernaut James "Avatar" Cameron, “Alita” (based on Yukito Kishiro’s 1990 manga “Battle Angel Alita”) seemed perpetually consigned to Cameron’s unrealized movie pile (a list that has its own Wikipedia page!).
But here we are in the year of our Lord 2019 with a $200 million adaptation helmed by none other than Austin’s own Robert Rodriguez, working with a budget that is at least twice what he has ever dealt with before, making a movie that is someone else’s dream project, both of which are a far cry from Rodriguez’s low budget, green screen DIY bailiwick.
The results? Well, give them this: Cameron remains a master of bigger bigness. The mix of enormous, tangible sets plus a motion captured lead character whose manga-sized eyes are just large enough to be genuinely disconcerting makes for a striking mix of the analog and the digital. Every frame is dense with visual information and even at a svelte-for-blockbusters 122 minutes, “Alita” is A LOT of movie — some of it clumsy, some of it elegant.
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It’s the 26th century. The division between the haves and the have-nots is dramatic: Those of means inhabit the floating city Zalem. Below it on Earth: Iron City, which has literally grown up around Zalem’s dump, a dump in which a cybernetics doctor named Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the broken body of a cyborg he names Alita (a motion-captured Rosa Salazar). Ido fixes her up with a new body and suddenly has something like a combat-ready surrogate daughter. Alita can’t remember a thing about her past and has to be taught how to eat an orange but also can beat you senseless. Her wonder about the world is ours.
She soon becomes pals with a human named Hugo (Keean Johnson), who teaches Alita about love and a bloodsport called motorball, and becomes enemies with a bunch of cyborgs of varying sizes who are ... sometimes hunting her, sometimes her allies maybe and sometimes her motorball competition? It gets complicated.
Mahershala Ali shows up as the mysterious Vector, who runs the motorball league, while Jennifer Connelly shows up as Ido’s ex-wife. But this is Salazar’s movie. In virtually every shot, let alone every scene, Salazar gives broad life to a character who is never completely sure of who or why she is. It’s genuinely disconcerting, on both a visual and emotional level, when Alita offers her literal heart, straight out of her chest, to Hugo (who is probably not ready for that level of body-horror commitment). Salazar keeps you in the moment completely, and that’s a real achievement.
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“Battle Angel Alita” was an action manga and Rodriguez turns all of the manga’s potential energy into something explosive. While the plot can feel both vague and heavy-handed, the flight scenes are an absolute blast — you could feel the energy in the quiet, darkened theater kick up a notch when Alita goes full sicko mode on bounty hunters or fellow motorballers. It’s balletic and violent, horror-movie weird and sci-fi bonkers all at once.
Who knows if American audiences will buy into a franchise about which they know little, but one of the enjoyable things about “Alita” is the feeling that Cameron might not care that much. As much as any filmmaker alive, Cameron can make a kabillion dollar budget feel like a private pursuit, even with Rodriguez as his vector. Whatever it is, “Alita” is exactly the movie both of these guys wanted you to see.