A passion project for producer James Cameron, Alita Battle Angel has been in the works for decades. Finally shepherded to the screen by Cameron’s handpicked director, Robert Rodriguez, Alita arrives in cinemas already a little rusty, with a jumbled script, yet never less than utterly entertaining. Dumb, over-sincere sci-fi action always treads a fine line between silly fun and exasperating nonsense, but Alita stays on the right side of that line for almost its entire runtime. It’s an absolute blast from start to finish, and though some of the enjoyment you’ll get out of it may be unintentional, it will still keep you happy.
Based on an influential manga series, Alita takes place 500 years in the future, and 300 years after an apocalyptic war turned the world into a junkyard. One utopian city remains, suspended high in the clouds and dropping its rubbish into the scrappy Iron City below. One of these discards is advanced but amnesiac cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar), who is fixed up by kindly doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Discovering she has an aptitude for decimating other cyborgs, Alita’s quest sees her attempting to uncover her past and bring justice to the underclass of Iron City.
Iron City itself looks incredible, cutting edge effects work overcoming the fact that it can feel derivative of a range of other dystopias. The very risky move of having Alita’s eyes be fully anime-sized on what is ostensibly a live-action face does not prove distracting or distressing, even in a world where everyone else’s face is normally proportioned. The performance behind those eyes leaves a lot less to praise, however, and both Salazar and Keean Johnson (as love interest Hugo) make for very flat romantic leads, no matter how hard the film pushes their story to the forefront.
Mahershala Ali is clearly having a lot of fun as big bad Vector, who seems to run all of Iron City’s seedy and criminal activity, but the grander conspiracy that drives his part of the story is frustrating. A lot of good world-building gets done by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis’s script (some one-scene characters could easily fill their own movie), but Alita leaves too many threads dangling for a sequel that will surely never exist. Yet, even as this problem becomes more evident, mad and ambitious individual beats keep you engaged, whether it’s a flashback to a war on the moon or some genuinely jaw-dropping cameos.
Rodriguez, working at a far higher budget level than usual, martials the action with a combination of slick choreography and imaginative scrappiness. Fights are easy to follow – and very, very grisly, pushing the 12a rating to its absolute breaking point – and the central set-pieces of Motorball (think roller derby but with 12-ton cyborgs) have a dizzying speed and weight to them. Never less than 100% committed to whatever it’s doing, and a lot more self-aware than I think it’s been given credit for, Alita outdoes most other blockbusters from the last 5 months on sheer fun factor, and is well worth a trip to the biggest screen possible to immerse yourself in its world.