Alita: Battle Angel is a surprisingly thrilling—and human—special effects extravaganza
Live-action adaptations of anime have had a rough go of it in Hollywood as of late. From the controversial Ghost in the Shell to Netflix’s widely mocked Death Note, anime seems to confound Western filmmakers, leaving them so preoccupied with trying to sterilize them for mainstream audiences that they fail to grasp what makes anime appealing in the first place. Too often these adaptations fail to translate the unique visual aesthetic of the medium, swapping out its often mind-bending action and world-building for more conventional approaches. In the process, these attempts to bring anime to the big screen lose the heart of the source material as well, with everything that made the original work emotionally resonant scrapped along with its distinct style.
Luckily, we finally have an adaptation that actually makes an effort to retain the spirit and feel of its inspiration, the surprisingly riveting Alita: Battle Angel (based on the manga Battle Angel Alita). A longtime dream project of James Cameron (Titanic), the now Avatar obsessed director handed the reins to cult favorite Robert Rodriguez (Machete) and let him run away with it, bringing a popular anime about a post-apocalyptic future filled with augmented humans to startling life. Focusing on the titular Alita (Rosa Salazar), a big-eyed (and I mean big) girl cyborg found in a scrap heap and brought back to life by the secretive Dr. Dyson Ito (a fatherly Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained), the film evolves from your typical robot-out-of-water story into an electric romp that sees Alita searching for her true purpose amidst a barrage of increasingly violent encounters with the bounty hunters, gangsters, and hidden power players that make up her new home.
If I’m being honest, trying to precisely boil down Alita is like trying to describe how water tastes while recovering from whiplash. Make no mistake, this film is an overstuffed, sometimes incoherent mess with approximately 5000 storylines happening at once: there’s flashbacks to Alita’s previous life as a space warrior, exposition dump after exposition dump trying to explain the dynamics of the world, and an absolutely insane death-sport called MOTORBALL that becomes Alita’s obsession. The only subplot the film ever chooses to comfortably explore for extended amounts of time is an under-baked and unneeded romance between Alita and the very forgettable pretty boy Hugo (Keean Johnson), a relationship that feels written by 12-year-old boy in-between Fortnite sessions and is rife with some of the most embarrassing (and even a little creepy!) exchanges of romance in recent memory.
But if I’m still being honest, it’s easy to ignore all that. When the film settles in for the spectacle and lets its performers really run with it, this is a film that soars. It has some of the most finely executed bits of CGI-action I’ve seen in years, performances from actors having the time of their lives, and an undeniable and intoxicating heart that raises the emotional stakes with each increasingly mesmerizing set-piece. Rosa Salazar, a genuine find, creates one of the most badass action heroines of the modern era, a ruthless but charming robokiller who rises above the script’s obvious issues with characterizing her and crafts something truly special. She isn’t alone, either; actors too often hold back in these sorts of knowingly silly movies, but not here. The stacked cast, from Waltz to a delightfully hammy Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), all play these kooky roles with the same gravitas they would give to Shakespeare. Whether it’s Ali monologuing about Motorball or Jeff Fahey (Lost) showing up as cyborg hound hunter called The Dog Master, it’s impossible not to see how much fun everyone is having with this material. It all comes together to make a very synthetic film feel human.
The action is the real stand-out, however, with every fight, Motorball match, or chase scene feeling more exciting than the last. The film’s unique, CGI-heavy look and its multiple delays had many worried that the effects wouldn’t hold up over its two-plus hour runtime, but Rodriguez’s kinetic style zips you through each action scene with a precision and grace that never fails to dazzle. It’s easy to see how the film may look dated in a decade, but for now, this is a monumental piece of visual storytelling, one that knows when to play its best cards and when to let you revel in the details of its world. It always feels crisp and easy to follow, unlike the dizzying visual assaults of other recent effects driven-releases (Ready Player One comes to mind). It also helps that despite the budget, Rodriguez’s flair for pulpy violence isn’t held back. This is a film that stands out for pushing the limits of its PG-13 rating, feeling less like a straightforward actioner and more like a body horror thriller amped up to eleven, with more lost limbs and bits of organs flying around than some zombie films. It only makes the film all the more alluring, giving it a unique and pulpy bravura that blockbusters too often shy away from.
Alita is bound to be one of the polarizing films of the year, caught between those who can’t forgive its messy nature and those who found themselves pumping their fists along with each of Alita’s small victories. But despite its problems, this is a film that’s admirable for sticking to the nature of its source material while forging itself as something new. It may not win any points for originality or self-control, but it’s such a consistently entertaining and dazzling visual marvel that it cements itself as the first genuine surprise of the year.