A striking new female character is ready for action in a fantastic-looking movie. Based on a Japanese manga comic book, Alita: Battle Angel combines the talents of two tech-savvy filmmakers, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. Screenwriting has never been their strong suit, but working with Laeta Kalogridis (who wrote the most recent Terminator movie), the vfx wizards at WETA and Cameron’s longtime producer Jon Landau, they have crafted a dynamic comic-book yarn. Like so many of these projects it hews to a formula, and it’s longer than it needs to be, but I still enjoyed watching it.
Cameron’s Avatar set a new standard for performance-capture and Alita reaffirms the exceptional result of that methodology. We’ve come a long way from Polar Express and even Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Alita is played by Rosa Salazar, whose eyes, face, and body have been digitally replaced, although she interacted with her fellow cast members on a gigantic set, not in front of a green screen. The rational part of my brain told me the character on screen wasn’t real—not with those oversized almond-shaped eyes—but she seems absolutely real and that’s the point.
The story takes place in the 26th century, “after the Fall.” The dystopian Iron City where the tale unfolds isn’t so different from the cityscape we saw in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Alita is a cyborg who has been discarded in a junkyard when Dr. Igo (Christoph Waltz) discovers her and pieces her back together on his operating table. She has no memory of her previous “life” and has to learn everything anew, as a young child would. He is understandably protective of his innocent charge, who attracts an unusual amount of attention, especially when her instincts kick in and put her in fighting mode. Inevitably, she experiences flashbacks that stimulate her curiosity about who she really is.
She finds a friend and guide to her new environment in a likable guy named Hugo (Keann Johnson), but no one in Iron City is who they seem to be. Alita’s growing frustration and a series of conflicts force Dr. Ido to reveal more than he wanted her to know at first. There are evil forces who would eliminate her (personified by Mahershala Ali) and others (like Jennifer Connelly) who have their own reasons to care about her fate. The action centerpiece of the film is a radically violent spectator sport called Motorball where, in time, Alita will face her ultimate test.
I can’t compare this film with its manga source material, but it seems to me that Cameron and Rodriguez were the right team to bring this story to life in such a kinetically entertaining fashion. This isn’t cerebral or even highly original science-fiction. It’s sci-fi lite, designed to engage a young audience through pure escapism. On that level, Alita: Battle Angel succeeds in what it sets out to do.