It’s always a worry when a production company feels the need to force feed you the fact that a big-name is in a relatively minor role. In the case of Alita: Battle Angel, 20th Century Fox have been hammering home the fact that James Cameron is involved in a Producer capacity.
You have to feel a little sorry for director Robert Rodriguez as his name has been almost usurped by Cameron’s in the marketing push for this live-action adaptation of the classic manga. Of course, Cameron is too busy making the four Avatar sequels no-one actually cares about anymore and instead, entrusted his vision for Alita: Battle Angel to Rodriguez. He’s certainly an intriguing choice of director, but does the finished product work?
Set several centuries in the future, the abandoned Alita (Rosa Salazar) is found in the scrapyard of Iron City by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate cyber-doctor who takes the unconscious cyborg Alita to his clinic. When Alita awakens, she has no memory of who she is, nor does she have any recognition of the world she finds herself in. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious past.
After spending nearly $200million on Alita, Fox clearly think they’ve got another massive hit on their hands and to an extent, they deserve one. Battle Angel is a majestic film, filled with visual presence not dissimilar to the spectacle of watching Avatar for the first time in 2009. The bustling world of Iron City feels as if it’s living and breathing right before our eyes and that’s a testament to both Cameron and Rodriguez as well as the visual effects people down at Weta Digital.
This thriving metropolis is populated by practical and CGI effects of varying qualities, but as a movie world, it works much better than Wakanda did in Black Panther and is leagues ahead of the empty, soulless Asgard from Thor.
It is reminiscent of Sakaar in Thor: Ragnarok however, with its narrow streets and market stalls. The difference here is that Iron City is a much darker, eerier place than Sakarr ever was, save for Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster towering above everything.
The casting is also very good and features some household names that were clearly intrigued by the project. Waltz is excellent as the compassionate Ido and Jennifer Connelly works well as his ex-wife, though she is underused throughout.
Alita: Battle Angel is a pleasant surprise from a director who has needed a hit for quite some time.
Ed Skrein turns up every now and then as Zapan, a cyborg bounty hunter and provides some light comic relief in a film that has more than its fair share of darker moments. TV actor Keann Johnson makes his big-budget film debut here and he is excellent as Hugo, Alita’s love interest.
Unfortunately, the initial optimism fades somewhat when you realise that Alita: Battle Angel struggles under the weight of its own script. Plot points in the first 45 minutes feel ridiculously rushed and then the film hurtles towards its climax without stopping for breath.
You get the feeling there was much more that had to be cut to trim the runtime down to a more family friendly 2 hours. The dialogue too isn’t a strong point. Overly expositional and riddled in cliché, Alita is not a film you watch because of its sparkling and witty one-liners.
Niggles aside though and Alita: Battle Angel is much better than I thought it was going to be. The plot, while unoriginal, is sweet and easy enough to swallow, making it a great family film. True, it has its darker moments, but the strong visuals and vibrant environment will make it enjoyable for older children and adults alike.
Overall, Alita: Battle Angel is a pleasant surprise from a director who has needed a hit for quite some time. It’s a flawed film that struggles to cope with its many ideas that continuously pull it in hundreds of different directions, but it’s worth a watch just for the visual spectacle and emotionally arresting story. Whether or not it recoups that colossal $200million budget remains to be seen.