16 years can seem like multiple eternities when talking about developing one sci-fi film. For James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of Titanic and Avatar, one of his many babies was the long-gestating Alita: Battle Angel. With the latter having consumed his creative attention, the odds of audiences seeing his vision of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm would have appeared to be dashed. That was, until Robert Rodriguez, the uber-visionary who took on Spy Kids and Sin City, was hooked in to sit in the driver’s seat, with Cameron and co-producer Jon Landau serving as co-captains. I may say, it was worth the wait, yet in trying to push for being more than what ought to be enough a singular standalone film, the level of satisfaction felt did come with a hefty hammer swing of false realism.
When one steps into the realm of Alita, it’s rather swift, instantaneous, almost high art. Rosa Salazar (the Maze Runner trilogy), still a newcomer to legit leading characters, gracefully goes past her big-eyed CGI façade (possibly among Weta’s strongest film presence), presenting purest grace, always quick on her feet, sharp on the tongue. Much of why Alita works as well as it does, it’s through her as a conduit for two co-director dads nudging their daughter in the right direction. Reborn through a robotic body found in a junkyard in the year 2563, Alita, a former resistance fighter, strives to piece together the memories of her forgotten past. Her adoptive father, the noted cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz at his most versatile, ranging between high-motion and commanding voice that can take over a room), recovers her working brain, somewhat recreating the buried image of his deceased daughter, much to the annoyance of his ex, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly). She and their daughter had always dreamed of something more majestic than their gritty Iron City; above them, the questionable (as in does it really exist?) utopian paradise of Zalem. Her way in may be through a shady businessman, the cutthroat Vector (Mahershela Ali), who simultaneously discovers the immediate potential for Alita as a Motorball racer, slowly rising the ranks with new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson).
Around the same time, her former self, a somewhat cybernetic war tool with heavy martial arts training, begins to reconnect the dots, igniting a passion toward being a true hunter-warrior, much like her adoptive father. Yet, of course, there always needs to be a secondary villain out for bloodshed, the deliberate bounty hunter Zapan (Deadpool’s Ed Skrein). That need to survive, the desire to thrive beyond the norm? It’s a thrilling combo that does build up our heroine into a true action movie icon, taking on multiple facets for something uniquely complex, and yet still simplistic in her strength and energy. Salazar is all-out physical, wrenchingly empathic, no less caring than expected.
She’s the special compass by which Cameron, Rodriguez, and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) build the unique techno-steampunk universe around them; in other words, best call delaying another two months so that audiences wouldn’t find themselves confused over which film was which (this one or Mortal Engines). Rodriguez’s visual-heavy style, utilizing multiple cameras in a single shot, and in the case of Salazar, in-person mocap rigs, serves him well to not so much recreate the manga, more to further elaborate its grandeur. I certainly said high art at the beginning for a reason; it may not necessarily be like Rembrandt, but I could still sense a convincing portrait being drafted of the future still being trapped in bygone times, raw dystopian ethics on display. DoP Bill Pope (Baby Driver), whose most recent works have called for tall orders on the elemental scale, between character and object, certainly had his hands full, and his stamina may never be matched, permanently capturing those images.
Cameron’s passion runs real circles, at least on the page. no detail unturned, yet in pushing every possible avenue, leaving multiple Easter eggs behind that one could come back to in a later film should Fox (or Disney) be willing enough to greenlight one, the film is found tapping the brake pedal more than once. Multiple long-winded, dialogue-heavy sequences that lay thick on the exposition but should otherwise establish more of the origin tale, Alita’s unique connection to essentially the rest of the supporting cast, all that slows down the momentum, though mercifully not to any sort of breaking point.
Chief among these taps, its best one, the late-game introduction of a higher-ranking enemy/deity whose name or actor should remain nameless, but if they were to go more all in on this guy next round, we probably would have a stronger antagonist, and a greater foil for the dramatically committed Connelly thanks to the inherent slow burn. Not saying Mr. Ali, who has been on a serious roll last few months, wasn’t any less valuable, this is just another major checkmark in his hit parade. The above mentioned should equal just to one very small complaint, I honestly doubt we need more than one (or two films); Cameron and Rodriguez may be pushing too hard for more than that, but that’s fine. They have a long-term idea; perhaps a compromise can be approached where they may reach it in some fashion. At the very least, let there be more Motorball. Lots more, if it could just be made a spinoff movie with plenty of hints to its far more superior originator from the 70s (I’m guessing).
Where it stumbles, Alita: Battle Angel rebounds quickly, back on its feet, or wheels, before any mishaps occur. For me, it may’ve been enough to set the tone for where action or sci-fi films should go this year: into more unique worlds unlike our own, yet still staying close to the ground and not running too far behind from what’s real, or what could be made real. I was greatly impressed by what it could accomplish, most notably its creative range. It’s still more Cameron’s vision than Rodriguez’s, the latter still capable to handle the challenges to create his finest film this decade. Yet the combination of the two couldn’t be more kinetic, that alone is enough to really set the stage for more than what’s possible. To other directors who’ve been busy with similar-looking tentpoles, I’d say the bar’s been raised, just a skosh. (B+)
Alita: Battle Angel opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language; 122 minutes.