Review Date: 2/17/19
Producer: James Cameron
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Lana Condor, Eiza Gonzalez, cameo by Ed Norton
In a lawless dystopian future, the citizens of Iron City struggle to survive in the shadow of a great floating city called Zalem. One day, while sifting through Zalem's garbage, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) makes an astonishing discovery: the living heart and brain of a highly advanced combat cyborg. Being a skilled cybernetic doctor, he manages to rescue and revive the discarded creature, and gives her a new cybernetic body. Having no memories of who or what she is, Ido names her "Alita." With the wonder of a child and the rebellious spirit of a teenage girl, Alita (Rosa Salazar) quickly adapts to life in Iron City. Despite protests from the overly protective Ido, she falls in love with a street punk named Hugo (Keean Johnson) and yearns to play a dangerous sport called motorball. Outbursts of violence spark memories of Alita's past life, and bloodlust inspires her to become a bounty hunter. Her ambitious rise to prominence doesn't go unnoticed, and some very high ranking people in both Iron City and Zalem want her dead. Fortunately, Alita is more than capable of handling herself, but can she protect and save the people she loves most?
"Alita" was a pet project of James Cameron for a long time, and as a fan of Yukito Kishiro's original manga, I thought he would be the perfect person to make it happen. But then he decided to make "Avatar" (2009) instead, and "Alita" withered on the vine. Ten years later with director Robert Rodriguez at the helm, it seems a bit stale and feels like a huge missed opportunity. The normally bold and confident Rodriguez shows an unusual amount of restraint in the film, which I'm guessing was the result of studio pressure, feedback from Cameron, and the daunting $170 million budget. Unlike Cameron, Rodriguez is a scrappy, down-and-dirty filmmaker, and that approach doesn't really work with an effects-heavy spectacle like "Alita."
It's an admirable adaptation of the first several chapters of the manga, and you can definitely pick up on Cameron's influence in the writing. There are several liberties taken with the script to build out Ido's and Chiren's (Jennifer Connelly) backstories, and while they're not deal breakers, they reek of Hollywood sensibilities. The filmmakers also play it safe by softening the characters. Both Hugo and Chiren are sympathetic characters who end up repenting, rather than staying true to their selfish, cold-hearted, and merciless natures. Hugo, in particular, is presented as a romantic dreamboat, instead of an obsessive mercenary with a tragic past. The narrative feels a bit clunky and the film jerks along at an uneven pace, but where the film suffers most is in its awkward and insipid dialog. Grewishka's (Jackie Earle Haley) lines are cringe-inducing, the motorball commentary is painfully grating, and Zapan's (Ed Skrein) arrogance and pretty boy attitude make him more comical than threatening.
The film looks fantastic and does an excellent job of realizing and honoring Kishiro's vision, and there are numerous scenes lifted straight from the manga. However, it's odd that some of the most iconic details were purposely altered or left out, like Alita's Shiba Inu dog, Ido's mark of Zalem, and Alita's gigantic butterfly knife/sword. The visual effects are superb, although Alita's mouth and oversized eyes are a constant distraction. However, seeing her in action is pure bliss, and that's where the film really shines. Alita's action scenes perfectly capture the violent grace and power of her berserker body and Panzer Kunst fighting style, and the dramatic camera angles distinctly reflect an anime approach. The music is good, but doesn't leave any lasting impressions.
Christoph Waltz provides the dramatic backbone of the film, and his performance is excellent. Unfortunately, his limited action scenes are unconvincing and he's burdened with explaining everything about everything in the film. Rosa Salazar gives an uneven performance, but hits all of the right emotional notes for the most part. It's nice to see Jennifer Connelly playing a villain, although I thought she was underutilized and not entirely engaged. Mahershala Ali does his best Wesley Snipes impersonation as the sinister Vector, and gives a memorable performance. In fact, I thought he actually was Wesley Snipes in the trailer. Lana Condor provides some delightful eye candy as one of Alita's friends, and I was excited to see Eiza Gonzalez show up until I realized it was just her head.
Despite the film's flaws and shortcomings, I thoroughly enjoyed it and seeing Alita in action brought me to tears on multiple occasions. The film ends with Alita fully realizing her potential and setting up a sequel that will never get made. It's definitely a spectacle film and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I saw it on a small screen, since there were very few theaters showing the 2D version. It's not a radical game-changing film by any means, but if you're a fan of anime, science fiction, and/or female action, it's bound to tickle some sweet spots.