Alita: Battle Angel (2019) by Robert Rodriguez
Review by Nathan Smith
Hollywood has spent years trying to gentrify anime for American audiences. The last decade is littered with miscarriages from this mostly misguided effort to make manga flesh again: Dragonball: Evolution, Death Note, Ghost in the Shell. Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of the Japanese manga Gunnm, seemed like it might be yet another death in the water when its trailer first premiered over a year ago. Initial viewers criticized the protagonist’s over-large, inhuman anime eyes; multiple delays and the name “Robert Rodriguez” didn’t necessarily signal good news either.
I am happy to report, then, that Alita: Battle Angel is one of the most refreshing Hollywood blockbusters of the last half-decade, an imaginative and engaging attempt to introduce a new intellectual property to the movie-going public. Skeptics of the artistic talent behind Shorts will be relieved to hear that Rodriguez is firmly in journeyman mode. Though he’s long thought of himself as a kind of one-man-band auteur, Rodriguez’s films have never really been the subject of any serious auteurist consideration, except for maybe in France, where Sin City appeared at #9 on Cahiers Du Cinema’s Top 10 list for 2005. This picture is through and through the baby of James Cameron, who has been trying to make an Alita movie happen ever since Guillermo Del Toro introduced him to the source material at the end of the last century. He’s owned the domain name to the movie’s official website for decades now, but the glittery bauble that is unobtainium proved too powerful a distraction for a Cameron-directed Alita movie to ever materialize.
Even then, Rodriguez isn’t a bad choice to do what Cameron would do himself if he weren’t so consumed with his Avatar sequels. Like Cameron (and also Spielberg and Zemeckis), Rodriguez has long been an early adopter of new advances in film technology, using digital effects and equipment not just for convenience’s sake, but to add another layer of uncanny sentimentality to his storytelling. It’s no coincidence that Cameron and Rodriguez’s movies are among the most artificial product Hollywood has to offer and also its most maudlin. They both try to sell new technology to skeptical audiences through schmaltz, making digital gimmicks necessary to their narratives (think Sharkboy and Lavagirl, which makes a clunky attempt to integrate 3D glasses into the story itself). Alita is much the same, using motion-capture to pierce straight to the heart.
Alita, played by newcomer Rosa Salazar, is a clear-eyed, amicable heroine, one that’s easy to root for and identify with. Every kid’s movie contains a quest to find one’s self, but Alita’s literal search for a body that feels right might add extra resonance for viewers uncomfortable with their own. Her eyes take some adjusting to, but the connection Salazar builds with adopted father Christoph Waltz is unquestionably genuine. Among the visual highlights of Alita are motorball, a combat sport that’s a cross between the races in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer and the titular competition in John McTiernan’s Rollerball (2002). The character and creature design, though borrowed from the manga, are also more imaginative than any blockbuster this side of Valerian. The world of Alita is stuffed to the brim with wicked-looking bounty hunters that would make Ralph McQuarrie jealous; Rodriguez is sure to point out that guns are illegal in this world, which means every “hunter-warrior” must rely on menacing blade weapons. Waltz carries around a huge scythe that recalls Tsui Hark’s The Blade; another big daddy droid shoots hooked chains out of his fingers. Perhaps the only real offense Alita commits is utterly wasting Mahershala Ali, who brings the same kind of dignified stoicism to this picture that Alec Guinness brought to Star Wars—how he hasn’t been cast as a Jedi master yet is beyond me.
Though it’s a few degrees below the Wachowskis, Alita is the kind of genuinely cinematic, good-natured blockbuster filmmaking that’s all too scarce in Disney’s gated community. It’s spectacle, but spectacle produced with care and consideration, something that feels a little more earnest than what we’re used to coming off the assembly line. Alita demonstrates remarkable confidence in its own ability to generate a sequel, fully committing to a cliffhanger ending, but it’s a confidence that pays off. This is a movie that believes in its hero and itself, and I believe in it.