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Film Reviews Review: Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron’s Alita: Battle Angel better than a punch in the head

Rosa Salazar stars as Alita in Twentieth Century Fox’s Alita: Battle Angel.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox/Twentieth Century Fox.

Alita: Battle Angel

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Written by James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez

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Classification PG; 122 minutes

rating

Alita: Battle Angel feels like a movie zapped in from another era.

Not the distant future of its setting, nor the crumbling, ancient past conjured by its mise en scène. It feels like a lost artifact of a relatively recent past; like a forgotten film made by a boy who was 12 in 1998; a Fifth Element-obsessed adolescent enamoured by cyberpunk, in-line skating, big beat techno and fat leather watch bands. Imagine that the kid in a droopy knock-off No Fear tuque who doodled sexy cyborgs in the margins of his Grade 7 notebook somehow marshalled all the resources of Hollywood filmmaking and made a movie. Alita: Battle Angel is that movie.

This is all meant to be complimentary. In a blockbuster movie-going landscape monopolized by zillion-dollar superhero movies utterly beggared of anything like style and vision, Alita’s wanton mishmash of Japanese manga, Romanesque architecture, cyber-trash aesthetics and made-up Martian-Germanic martial arts techniques (panzerkunst, or, roughly, “tank art”) at least qualifies as an aesthetic. Of course, such praise is wholly relative.

Watching Alita: Battle Angel is undoubtedly preferable to suffering through an Avengers movie, or being punched in the back of the head. But taken on its own terms, the commingling of writer-producer James Cameron’s monster-budget technowizardry and director Robert Rodriguez’s B-movie sensibilities doesn’t amount to a heck of a lot.

Alita’s wanton mishmash of Japanese manga, Romanesque architecture, cyber-trash aesthetics and made-up Martian-Germanic martial arts techniques at least qualifies as an aesthetic.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox/Twentieth Century Fox.

The film begins promisingly enough, with some exposition about how, in a distant postlapsarian future, elites occupy a floating megacity, while plebs and cyborgs scrabble about in a dense, multicultural super-slum dotted with mighty hillocks of trash. It’s in such a heap that goodly cybernetics engineer Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the tossed-off dregs of Alita (Rosa Salazar, brought to life on screen by way of state-of-the-art motion capture), an amnesiac mechanical life form. The early scenes, in which Alita leaps and gambols around her new home are encouraging, and convey the intoxicating sweep of seeing the world through new, comically oversized eyes. It helps that the Alita character is totally convincing, landing in that sweet spot between the cartoonishness of her manga origins, and the uncanny hyper-realness that can make CGI characters register more like animated corpses.

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From there, however, Battle Angel falls deep into cliché, grinding through a rote plot about a not-so-reluctant heroine excavating her true identity, and squaring off against a cadre of well-dressed baddies (including Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali) who rightly view Alita as a finely honed threat to the established order. To their credit, Ali, Waltz and Connelly offer finely tuned performances, which push back considerably against the nagging sense that they’re all sort of slumming it. Jackie Earle Haley, as a super-augmented cyborg miniboss, is especially good. But these pleasant turns feel like mere filigrees gilding the edges of an otherwise hollow picture.

The Alita character is totally convincing, landing in that sweet spot between the cartoonishness of her manga origins, and the uncanny hyper-realness that can make CGI characters register more like animated corpses.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox/Twentieth Century Fox.

Little is helped by Rodriguez, who adds next-to-nothing to the filmmaking itself. Apart from a few genuinely exciting, extreme sports rollerblading sequences, Alita’s exploits feel flat, with Rodriguez committing the fatal flaw of cutting on the action during his extended martial arts melees, instead of sustaining the longer, more sinuous camera movements that lend truly great fight scenes their breathless, heart-in-the-guts energy. The whole things reeks, almost a bit knowingly, as for-hire hackwork.

As for James “King of the World” Cameron: There are moments in his career when his deep fascination with the technology of large-scale filmmaking chimes harmoniously with his wobblier capacity for storytelling. Terminator 2, Titanic and, yes, even Avatar are all such examples (with the requisite caveat that, whatever its thrills and genuine delights, that latter film undoubtedly had a net detrimental effect on the motion picture arts). Alita plays more like a benchmark test for Cameron’s latest evolution in computer-graphics. It’s as if his goal was to test-drive this new technology on a closed course, in order to tweak it and open up a fully souped-up version in one of his nine forthcoming Avatar sequels.

Viewed in the despairing environment of the big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, Alita is likely to find a cult of core fans drawn in by the persuasive digital animation, and pick-and-choose, smorgasbord world-building. In the long view, though, it’s likely to enjoy much the same fate as 2000′s cine-technological milestone Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. And that, perhaps, is the ultimate case of damning with faint, highly relative praise.

Alita is likely to find a cult of core fans drawn in by the persuasive digital animation, and pick-and-choose, smorgasbord world-building.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox/Twentieth Century Fox.

Alita: Battle Angel opens Feb. 14

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