On Alita: Battle Angel

Sometimes, I think it can be dangerous to have a pet project. James Cameron is a bit notorious for this; twice now, he’s had a project in mind that he’s had to keep on the back burner, largely because of the fact that, when he first considered doing them, special effects technology simply wasn’t up to the job of portraying the story he wanted to tell successfully, forcing him to go off and do other things until the film industry catches up. In the first instance, the result was Avatar. Whatever you might think of that movie, and it certainly has its flaws, it’s hard to argue with the box office results, as it still tops the worldwide charts ten years after its release.

The second one is Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of the Japanese manga series Gunnm. Cameron’s had this one in his back pocket since at least 2000 and at some points, it was really beginning to look like it would never be made. With Cameron increasingly tied up with the ever-expanding number of Avatar sequels (four, at the time of writing), directing duties eventually passed to Robert Rodriguez and so, after a couple of decades of gestation, the film has finally hit cinemas. With the best will in the world, it’s not going to compete too well with its predecessor.

The story, set about six hundred years into the future and about three hundred years after a devastating war, revolves around a disembodied cyborg with an intact human brain found in a junkyard by a scientist who rebuilds her, naming her Alita after his deceased daughter. Unable to remember her past, Alita swiftly discovers an unexpected proficiency in an ancient martial art and an instinctive tendency towards violence that troubles her adoptive father. With cyborg assassins looking to eliminate her, Alita has to come to terms with her unknown past quickly to survive.

On a surface level, the film is pretty good. Cameron has a talent for world-building, and has a successful manga series to build on, and Rodriguez is a highly proficient director, good with both action and quieter moments. The film duly looks exceptional, with effects work at the top of their game, and a production design that’s visually interesting, most notable being the designs of the many cyborgs that populate the movie. Alita’s unusually large eyes, which prompted a lot of commentary after the first trailers came out, rapidly become a non-issue once it becomes apparent that her whole body is visibly artificial, with only the head, neck and shoulders being covered with skin.

Rosa Salazar does a good job as Alita, acting entirely through the medium of motion capture. It’s very well done, too, as her nuanced performance comes through clearly, neatly balancing the dual aspects of teenage girl and high-tech warrior. Christoph Waltz likewise does excellent work as her would-be father figure. Mahershala Ali provides a mostly restrained performance as the film’s primary villain, with Jennifer Connelly solid as his morally conflicted cyborg expert.

The film’s action sequences are well-handled, particularly a centrepiece sequence when Alita gets roped into a game of motorball, a race through a twisting course where cyborgs do their best to kill each other. It’s a pretty thrilling set piece that the rest of the movie doesn’t entirely manage to match.

Unfortunately, Alita: Battle Angel does have one pretty major flaw, in that it’s far more interested in setting up sequels than in telling a complete story. As a result, there’s a sense that the movie doesn’t so much end as just stop, leaving a huge number of plot threads unaddressed. The film poses a great deal of questions, almost none of which get answers. Several reasonably high profile actors, such as Edward Norton, Jai Courtney and Michelle Rodriguez show up in extremely small roles that, as a result, practically scream that they’re going to be really important later on (the only saving grace being that none of them are instantly recognisable). A brief epilogue, which picks up the story months after the rest of the movie, essentially skips quite a chunk of plot with an “and all this happened, but we’re not going to show you” feel to it, which feels both awkward and a shame, as it covers her later participation in the motorball tournaments that were pretty much the coolest part of the movie. It’s, at least in hindsight, quite frustrating and seems like a misstep, particularly in a high budget movie where the box office required to get a sequel can hardly be guaranteed. Fortunately, mostly due to a strong showing in China, it’s starting to look like it might do well enough to get one.

On a lot of levels, Alita: Battle Angel is a decently made, fun film. It’s probably not going to convert people who aren’t that hot on science fiction, but for those who are, as long as you can set aside a degree of irritation at the blatant sequel setting-up, it’s entirely worth a watch.