06th Feb2019

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Casper Van Dien, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Ed Skrein, Keean Johnson | Written by James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, Robert Rodriguez | Directed by Robert Rodriguez

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Director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron collaborate on this sci-fi action adventure that’s intended to kick-start a franchise. The effects work and the action sequences are both spectacular, but the derivative plot feels like a video game version of a dystopian YA romance novel.

Based on the Japanese manga series Gunnm (by Yukito Kishiro), the story is set in the year 2563, three centuries after an apocalyptic war, where the majority of the survivors live in Iron City, beneath a floating metropolis known as Zalem. When Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the core of a young female in a scrapheap, he attaches her to a cybernetic body and reboots her, naming her Alita (Rosa Salazar), after his dead daughter, who was intended to be the body’s original recipient.

Once conscious, Alita realises that she has no memory of her previous life, but dangerous situations prompt impressive fighting skills, leading her to believe she was once a skilled warrior. Meanwhile, she falls in love with robo-junk dealer Hugo (Keean Johnson) and becomes skilled at the art of Motorball, a popular arena sport that’s like a roller-slash-demolition derby for cyborgs. This brings her to the attention of Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and Motorball impresario Vector (Mahershala Ali), who are trying to create the perfect player. At the same time, a mysterious figure from Zalem is watching over her for his own ends.

Salazar (recently seen in Netflix’s Bird Box) has undergone something of a digital enhancement for the film, resulting in cartoonishly large eyes that make her look, appropriately, like a manga character come to life. It’s a testament to both Salazar’s performance and the film’s exceptional special effects work that the CGI never becomes a distraction and you empathise with Alita as much as you would a fully human character.

However, the effects work really comes into its own in the action sequences, which are genuinely thrilling. Whether it’s Alita taking down a room full of robo-goons in a bar (she has a distinctive kick-based fighting style referred to as “panzer kunst”), squaring off against Ed Skrein’s sword-wielding cyborg bounty hunter Zatan or engaging in the mother of all Motorball battles, the action is beautifully choreographed and immensely satisfying.

The supporting performances are good, particularly Waltz, whose inherent creepiness is put to interesting effect, and genre cinema’s new go-to bad guy Skrein, who’s clearly enjoying himself as Alita’s main antagonist. However, both Connelly and Ali are distinctly under-used and you can’t help wishing the film had devoted as much time to whatever they’re up to as it does to Alita and Hugo’s insipid, YA-style romance.

To that end, the film’s biggest problem is the underwhelming plot, which is extremely derivative (it steals liberally from the likes of Rollerball, Elysium and A.I.) and frequently resembles a cut-scenes video game story. It even has a similar progression to a video game, in that Alita has mini-missions (win game, track bounty hunter target, fight bad guy etc) and receives upgrades when she discovers she’s compatible with sophisticated enemy technology.

On top of that, the film is too concerned with setting up the franchise, opting to leave several notable elements (such as even a single a glimpse inside Zalem) for the inevitable sequels. That backfires considerably, because the frustrating ending doesn’t exactly leave you hungering for the next instalment and the cliff-hanger reveal of Mystery Actor as Zalem’s hidden mastermind isn’t quite the hook the filmmakers think it is.

On balance, Alita: Battle Angel is definitely worth seeing for its effects and action sequences, especially if you’re a full-on robo-nerd. However, the plot is disappointing, with even the YA romance angle failing to achieve the desired emotional impact.

*** 3/5

Alita: Battle Angel is in UK cinemas from today.

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2 Responses to “‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Review”

  • Plisskenetic

    You STUPID reviewer! The film is based on material from the manga that came way before Elysium, AI & Rollerball! and when the film ended, I really wanted to see more and it left me hungering for the next installment big time!

  • Teru

    Was Casper Van Dien cut from the theatrical release? I don’t recall seeing him, unless he was one of the background Hunter-Warriors in the bar.