Alita: Battle Angel (***) – Gives its heart…

Alita Battle Angel – 2019

Director Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Casper Van Dien, Eiza González, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., Edward Norton, Michelle Rodriguez, Jai Courtney

Alita: Battle Angel has been shown in trailers since December of 2017. After seeing it in front of so many other films, I feel like I have seen it already. If the film had turned out like my mind’s eye projected, I would have been disappointed.

Thankfully, some of the zigs of the trailer zagged on screen. The story through the first three acts is world building. This is when it’s most invigorating. Salazar completely inhabits the heart of the titular character. She is as fierce as her heart is pure. For the most part, she is no fool, except when the plot requires it of her.

The story begins over 500 years in the future with Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz), travelling through a literal junkyard for the last wealthy sky city of Zalem. The rest of the cities fell 300 hundred years prior in a massive battle in the war now referred to as “The Fall.” Ido finds the core of a female cyborg with a fully intact brain, along with a heart that could run the entire area of Iron City, which lay below Zalem.

He puts her together in the body that he’d intended to use for someone else, and gives her that person’s name, Alita. She awakes, speaking, but not knowing anything else about who she is or where she’s been. She’ll find out, soon enough.

She comes across a young man named Hugo (Johnson). He takes her places that Ido will not, and in the process, she finds more of herself. Literally.

As Alita begins to wake up to the world, she begins to bristle at things she understands to be wrong. She has incredibly sharp instincts which are portrayed smartly.

Salazar manages to walk the line, with a wizened innocence that fits the character as we find out more about her past. Even the weakest parts of the script (most scenes involving Hugo), she presents the energy and innocence that seems plausible, even when the object of her affection is not nearly so believable.

Her relationship with her pseudo-father, Ido succeeds in spite of some silly ideas. There’s a massive weapon that Waltz is forced to carry which seems impractical and unlikely to do more than get him hurt. His dual responsibilities could have been handled better if he’d been presented more with one of them, leaving someone more believable for the physical stuff.

Seeing Alita up against cyborg assassins and “hunters” is the highlight of the film. Salazar is invigorating as she charges ahead into the fight with a skill to match her desire. That every battle is not a preordained victory benefits the story.

The plastic looking nature of the cyborgs also segues nicely with the effects, which sometimes looks a bit elastic. The mind is more acclimatized to the idea that this is what they should look like.

The film feels like its about one half hour too long. The last act is foreshadowed so heavily, it feels like you’re seeing it for the second time by the time you get there. The climax of the story feels more parenthetical as we are force fed hints of future installments. This detracts from the overall success of the film.

Haley, Connelly and Ali are largely wasted. It’s tough to get a feel for characters that seem to be conduits for a more powerful character somewhere off screen. I didn’t even recognize Haley until I saw his name in the credits. It feels like they were there for name recognition as much as anything.

Overall, the film works for me. I really loved the echoes to Rodriguez tropes, most specifically the bar fight. His visual style is as good as ever, but might have worked better for me had they forgone 3D effects. This only detracted from the overall visual aesthetic of the city and environs. Em and I both felt stuck in one head position for most of the film. Anything not in the foreground is rendered out of focus.

If this feels like a negative review, it’s not intended. The film is a success, especially considering how long it took to get this film completed. The sequel(s) hold the smallest hint of promise. I am willing to see if they can come through.

(*** out of *****)

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