Movie review: Gritty and graceful 'Alita: Battle Angel'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 13 2019 04:16 PM

Rosa Salazar in the title role in 'Alita: Battle Angel.' Handout

In a dystopic Iron City in the year 2563, Dr. Dyson Ido found the damaged remains of a female cyborg whose human brain was still fully intact. After Ido rebuilt and revived her, she did not recall anything from her past. Ido decided to name her Alita, the name of his deceased daughter. As she explored the city along with her new human friend Hugo, she would discover that she has awesome physical skills and fighting prowess. She would soon learn that she was a prime target on the hit list of various cyborg assassins.

Immediately right off the bat, your attention is grabbed by the film's spectacular computer generated imagery. From the busy cityscapes of Iron City to the fast-moving Motorball arena, every thing looks so vibrantly alive. The cyborgs of various sizes and weaponry are also very impressively executed in their breathtaking fight scenes. There are some pretty imaginative machines and vehicles conceived for various scenes, since this is more than 500 years into the future after all. So many futuristic steampunk films have been coming out recently (like "Blade Runner 2049," "Ready Player One," "Mortal Engines"), and this one still manages to stand out distinctly. 

Rosa Salazar had been in teen dystopian films like "Divergent" and "Maze Runner," but I did not really know her name until this one. As Alita, Salazar joins Andy Serkis (Gollum of "The Lord of the Rings," Caesar of "Planet of the Apes" and Supreme Leader Snoke in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri of "Avatar") and maybe even Dan Stevens (Beast from "Beauty and the Beast") in the list of filmdom's most memorable performances by a computer-generated character. 

Even though I had my doubts when I saw her in the trailer, actually seeing Salazar's full performance as Alita was truly enchanting. Her reborn naivete in Act 1 was so sweet and endearing (what with those expressive big eyes!), such that even when Alita goes full-on sword warrior slicing and dicing left and right, we still found her to be good, graceful and beautiful soul -- battle angel indeed. Despite some unclear story elements, it is Salazar's Alita that kept our attention and emotional connection to the very end.

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Three actors who had won Oscars for acting in a supporting role have supporting roles in this film. Christoph Waltz ("Inglorious Basterds," "Django Unchained") remarkably went against his usual stereotyped role of cruel German Nazi to play Alita's sentimental father figure, Dr. Ido. His paternal chemistry with Alita had much depth and warmth. Jennifer Connely ("A Beautiful Mind") seemed miscast as Dr. Ido's ex-wife Chiren. She seemed uncomfortable and out-of-place in her scenes. Mahershala Ali ("Moonlight," "Green Book") displayed uncharacteristically awkward acting as Vector, a ruthless Motorball organizer, especially during his final face-off with Alita. 

Producer James Cameron took almost two decades to bring the 1990 Japanese cyberpunk manga series "Battle Angel Alita" by Yukito Kishiro to the big screen and the technological reasons for the long delay are clearly evdient. 

Cameron entrusted his script to the directorial discretion to Ruben Rodriguez, known for rough and tumble action flicks like "El Mariachi," "Desperado" and "Machete." That Old West spirit Rodriguez had was brought into the futuristic domain here. 

The ending promised a sequel (or maybe more if this proves lucrative in the box office) so there should be more opportunities for their creative team to further expound on this exciting new world they had created for Alita.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."