If there is one thing I can attribute to director Robert Rodriguez after seeing every one of his films since his career began in 1992 with El Mariachi is that he never compromises. He has a vision or a vision from another source that he finds or one that he is attached to and he goes all in. In 2001 when CGI was still just a tool he began to utilize the technology to create some of the sequences for his Spy Kids film series with actors and no sets, which led to filming an entire film without screen-used sets in 2005 with the excellent collaboration with Frank Miller in Sin City. From that point on there was no limit to what he could capture on film. He also only seemed to make films that he had a true interest in making, like sequels to Sin City, and Machete his Grindhouse trailer that became two films. It makes sense that he would get to a point in his almost 30-year career that he would want to see what could be done with the technology he endorsed all those years ago if given the budget of a major studio blockbuster, and the backing of one of the most successful filmmakers in history, James Cameron. Together they bring a manga series by Yukito Kishiro called Gunnm to the big screen in Alita: Battle Angel.
Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg with only a head and an armless torso intact who is found in the scrapyard below the last of the floating cities. She is put back together by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) a scientist with a knack for cybernetics which comes in handy in this post apocalyptic world where most people are cyborgs or have mechanical parts. As Alita has no memory of her previous life she explores her surroundings with fresh and gigantic anime eyes. She meets Hugo (Keean Johnson) a young man with his finger on the pulse of the city which is plagued by a killer that roams the streets at night. Alita discovers more about Dr. Ito’s past with his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and her relationship with Vector (Mahershala Ali) a tech-overlord who runs the dangerous games of Motorball (think roller derby by way of Speed Racer). She is then thrust into a world of bounty hunters played by Ed Skrein, Eiza González, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jackie Earle Haley where she begins to unravel her past while embracing her new powerful destiny.
It seems technology has caught up with Rodriguez’s imagination as this film is visually striking and is filled with one incredible set piece after another. Careful attention was paid to the look and feel of Alita (Salazar) even though there are times where she appears cartoonish with her over-sized eyes and some of her mouth movements a bit off, by the end I was fully invested in her character. Rosa Salazar brings tremendous life to Alita much in the way Andy Serkis did for Cesar in the Planet of the Apes series. The rest of the cast which is filled with Oscar winners, do very little and have even less impact on the story. Their character arcs begin and end abruptly as the film jumps around as fast as the Motorball action scenes. The biggest weakness of the film is the script co-written by Laeta Kalogridis and James Cameron. Even though Cameron gets a forever pass for writing The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and True Lies. But let’s face it, biggest movies of all time or not, after re-watching Titanic and Avatar that dialogue was never as solid as the spectacle of it all. The same goes for Alita, the clunky nature of the dialogue, tame love story and the rush-to-the-finish ending keep it from greatness. Nothing however can take away from the style, beauty and humor Rodriquez brings to the screen.
A part of me looks at Alita: Battle Angel as well as the filmography of Robert Rodriguez and wonders if this was his way of seeing what could be done with a 200 million dollar budget. That coupled with his history of making sequels of his films (over half a dozen) that this may be the beginning of a series. They without a doubt leave room for more to come, albeit a bit too much room, still it did in fact leave me wanting to see more adventures with Alita. And even more excited to see what Rodriguez would do with Cameron’s toys when he has the ability to write, direct, and cut like he did with some of his best movies.