Alita: Battle Angel review - Eye-popping spectacle 5

A passion project years in the making. Revolutionary fully computer-generated characters. Deep world-building. Spectacular action. Clumsy fumbles with the script. Ah yes, it’s another James Cameron sci-fi blockbuster. Unlike with all-time heavyweight champion Avatar though, Cameron’s latest production is not tracking to break any box office records. Heck, it may not even break even with its $200 million production budget according to some pundits. Which is a pity because Alita: Battle Angel, some issues aside, is a rather fun and faithful anime/manga adaptation that is incredibly easy on the eye.

Two rather huge eyes, to be exact. Those engorged peepers belonging to the titular Alita (Rosa Salazar), a half-destroyed cyborg discovered by charitable robo-doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) while out scavenging the mountainous piles of trash that make up large portions of squalid future metropole Iron City. The refuse rains down from the utopian floating city of Zalem, the last technologically advanced remnant of a catastrophic war known as The Fall, hovering over the less fortunate people down below. Dr. Ido manages to fix up his droid discovery, complete with a new body, but the addle-minded Alita has no idea who she is or where she comes from. In fact, she knows little of anything, which local puppy-dog-eyed scrounger Hugo (Keean Johnson) soon discovers as he introduces her to the sights of Iron City, including the mechanized maelstrom of Motorball.

Alita: Battle Angel review - Eye-popping spectacle 6

The viciously thrilling competitive sport is run by the enigmatic Vector (Mahersha Ali) and his righthand woman/squeeze Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), and offers one of the only ways for an Iron City citizen to earn their way up to Zalem. Alita falls in love with the frenetic sport immediately and soon discovers she has some skill with it. More than that though, much to Dr. Ido’s consternation, Alita also has more than just some skill when it comes to dispatching cyberpunk assassins of all shapes and sizes using the lost martial art of “Panzer Kunst”. Just what is the secret of this cyborg girl’s past?

While that question will eventually get answered, Alita: Battle Angel will also proceed to answer about 20 other questions you may not even have thought to ask. Yukito Kishiro’s original manga is a nine-volume sci-fi epic that ran for five years, and it seems like Cameron and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis are intent on getting as much of that story crammed into the film’s two-hour running time. The result is a frantic busyness as the story leaps and flips through about six or seven acts – a few of them often feeling like they could be the end, only for another narrative tangent to get tackled. And the worst part of all is that even with so much story stuffed into every possible crevice of the plot, the film still doesn’t get through it all, choosing to set up a sequel that we may not actually get.

Alita: Battle Angel review - Eye-popping spectacle 7

But at least what we do get in all that half-dozen jumble of acts in a mesmerizing visual feast and boasts some of the slickest anime-inspired action ever seen. This is all thanks to director Robert Rodriguez, who producer Cameron personally tapped to helm this film after it was stuck in development hell for over a decade and a half despite his continued efforts. Rodriguez has always had a flair for the stylish, whether he was shooting up Mexican cantinas with guitar case rocket launchers in the Desperado films or employing cartoonish CGI antics to thrill all-ages in Spy Kids. He is thus a perfect fit for this gorgeously realized future world with its wide-eyed heroines, hulking robot bruisers and giant rocket-hammer swinging vigilantes. Sweeping over and through the digitally enhanced Iron City, Rodriguez gives us spectacle after spectacle (in arguably his best film since Sin City), with cool physical flourishes added to Alita’s antics that should leave any anime fan happy.

And through it all, it’s Alita herself who stands as the film’s biggest special effect, both in terms of technical engineering and character. The digital magicians at WETA have done a jaw-dropping job in not just bringing the fully CG character to life, but also allowing Salazar’s incredible mo-capped infectious charm and personality to come shining through with every intensely detailed micro-expression and widening of those big eyes. You won’t be able to stop yourself from grinning as Alita’s face scrunches up in the pure childlike joy of discovering a world as vibrant as the one she finds herself in. Despite being nothing but a collection of pixels, Salazar’s Alita is undoubtedly the most human thing in this film.

Alita: Battle Angel review - Eye-popping spectacle 8

Of course that achievement is made easier thanks to the likes of Johnson turning in a Disney Channel-esque dud of a performance as Hugo, while powerhouse actors like Waltz, Ali, and Connolly aren’t really required to do any heavy lifting (though you definitely can’t fault them on what they do bring to the table). It’s also a testament to the actors’ professionalism that they can keep a straight face through some laughably bad dialogue. Rodriguez does cleverly mute the impact of this badness in places with genuinely funny bouts of self-awareness though, but you will still have to sit through some cringe-worthy verbal exchanges.

Even with those foibles though, there’s still a lot I really like in Alita: Battle Angel. Cameron and Rodriguez appreciably lean hard into numerous anime stylings that may be considered silly by audience members not familiar with the format, but which I especially enjoyed. They also masterfully balance the American blockbuster side of things with aspects of the Japanese source material that results in arguably the best Hollywood anime adaptation we’ve ever seen, and which should leave you as buoyant and with eyes as wide as its heroine. See this on the biggest screen you can.

Last Updated: February 14, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel
A visual feast of a movie boasting an incredibly human heroine despite the fact that she's mostly just pixels on a screen, Alita: Battle Angel may not be the all-around resounding success producer/co-writer James Cameron may want it to be after he toiled on this passion project for 15 years thanks to an overstuffed script and bad dialogue. However, thanks to director Robert Rodriguez's slick filmmaking and flair for stylish action, combined with lead actress Rosa Salazar's motion-captured ebullience, we still get one of the best anime feature-film adaptations around.
7.5
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