As long as we are stuck waiting for the upcoming four sequels to Avatar, we might as well have a little fun, and that is what co-writer/producer James Cameron, director Robert Rodriguez and company do with the action comic book flick, Alita: Battle Angel.
The delightfully corny, noir-ish dialogue says it all: “She has the face of an angel and a body built for battle.” Indeed. Starring Rosa Salazar in a motion-capture performance as the title hero, this entertaining ride is based on the graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro and brings it to life in style, beginning with a clever re-imagining of the 20th Century Fox logo as 26th Century Fox. That is when this futuristic girl-power movie is set, 2563 to be exact, after an apocalyptic event that leaves the world of Iron City populated by cyborgs looking for parts, mixed with human beings. Meanwhile, a heavy, menacing criminal element is terrorizing the citizens of this run-down place, where all its inhabitants dream instead of living in the utopia high up in the clouds known as Zalem.
Alita is discovered as a disheveled, torn-up mess, thrown on a junk heap but rescued by a cyborg surgeon named Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who sees in her the answer to the world’s woes and re-creates her as a teenage fighting machine, something she slowly realizes as she awakens with absolutely no memory of who she ever was. Those past secrets are part of the mystery here, as she assimilates into Iron City, takes on a goofy but likable human cyborg-jacking boyfriend named Hugo (Keean Johnson) and starts exerting her newfound powers as one hell of a kickass fighter.
Central to her talents is the big spectator sport of Motorball, similar to Rollerball, and something she excels in, all the while avoiding the evil elements out to kill her. On the one hand this plays like a nice little YA teen flick, if it had a $160 million budget and a virtual wonderland of digital toys to play with. It also is loaded with well-conceived action set pieces. On the other hand, though, Cameron and co-writers Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis pack it with emotion — human emotion even thought the main character is a cyborg. It is her beating heart that might be her greatest weapon in terms of overcoming adversity, and the emotional payoff of the film, as in Titanic, is our investment in these engaging characters, especially Alita as she tries to discover who she really is and why she is still here. In fact, without giving any plot points away, Cameron steals from himself and his Titanic script with one gut-wrenching scene set in the clouds near the film’s climax. You won’t have any trouble figuring it out.
The human actors also include a mysterious Jennifer Connolly as well as Mahershala Ali as Vector, a villainous role for a change. Waltz fares best among them, showing real compassion for his creation. But the movie belongs to Salazar, who shows that motion capture doesn’t have to be fake or stiff and really digs into the soul of Alita, making her well worth watching. But I have to say the real stars here are WETA and the digital wizardry that lets this come so vividly to life. It might not be The Terminator, but it’ll do. You’ll have a good time, especially in 3D and Imax; the bigger the better for this one.
Producers are Cameron and Jon Landau. Fox opens it Friday, and it is clear the studio is are hoping this is the beginning of a new franchise. Check out my video review above that includes scenes from the film.
Do you plan to see Alita: Battle Angel? Let us know what you think.