Looking at Robert Rodriguez’s filmography you can see two directors working at two completely different spectrums in one man – Bloody horror pulpy Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, Sin City) and family friendly Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids series, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Shorts). With Alita: Battle Angel, he’s able to successfully combine the violent nature of one with the wonder and spectacle of the second, providing his very best since Sin City.
Alita: Battle Angel brings together Rodriguez with “King of the World” James Cameron to bring the story of a cyborg brought back to life by the scientist, Dr. Ito (Christoph Waltz). Alita, with no recollection of her past, seeks the truth of her origin while surviving in a harsh new world.
Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron have a history of giving female performers strong, rounded and bad-ass characters surrounded by fantastic circumstances with the likes of Sarah Connor and Cherry Darling from Planet Terror as prime examples of this.
Alita can be added to that list. Although an established character from the mangas, star Rosa Salazar does some great work behind all the technical bells and whistles, providing the protagonist a sweet, innocent childlike sense of wonder and discovery that can turn into a violent badass in the drop of a hat.
Which brings us to the what everyone will be talking about this film: The visual effects.
In 2009, James Cameron basically perfected CGI characters with Avatar. Although I don’t believe Alita: Battle Angel will do the same – really, how much better can visual effects get from here? – this is truly some top notch visual wizardry done by WETA digital, the team also in charge of groundbreaking visual effects work from the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes series, with a completely photorealistic Alita that still respects its manga design of a sleek, robot body with the characteristic big eyes.
This film is packed with so much eye candy, great character designs and visually arresting villains played with scenery chewing perfection by the likes of Jackie Earle Haley and Mahershala Ali, every frame is full of imagination and great little world building details. This is definitely a movie that should be enjoyed in the biggest possible screen.
Also along for the ride are our supporting characters played by Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Keean Johnson, Ed Skrein and Lana Condor. Waltz has the most to do out of all of them as the sympathetic Gepetto-like scientist who adopts Alita, and does his best with the given material but the whole movie really rests on Salazar’s shoulders.
However, like putting on pants two sizes too small and trying to hide your love handles with a long shirt and a deep breath, the fact that the movie has too much story for its own good can only be hidden for so long before that button holding it all together flies straight to your face. In fact, Cameron has publicly mentioned that his original script was closer to three hours, and it shows as so many characters, story threads, backstory and set up is presented in its two hour runtime. More room to breathe may have helped as it’s only natural many of these elements are left incomplete or have rushed resolutions.
Also, as is common nowadays in any big budget franchise starter, an obvious sequel is set up at the end with a particular enticing cameo for what is to come.
Finally, there are some truly bizarre choices (which I’m sure come more from the source material than Cameron or Rodriguez) made in the third act that some viewers may find too difficult to swallow. I don’t wish to spoil any of these events but suffice to say that seeing a pair of eyes and a brain floating in a big glass briefcase could be where some audiences draw the line.
If you’re ok with some of the weirder aspects of the story, Alita: Battle Angel gives Rodriguez a return to form with an incredibly wild, fun and imaginative action packed ride.