‘Alita: Battle Angel’ : An Incredible Cyberpunk Action Thriller

Reviewed By Magazine Desk

14 February, 2019 12:00 AM printer

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ : An Incredible 
Cyberpunk Action 

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron have worked with Peter Jackson’s visual effects wizards on this long-gestating manga-based action thriller. Twenty years in gestation, James Cameron's long-cherished manga adaptation ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ finally reaches the big screen. With that kind of cinematic pedigree, backed by a reported $200 million budget, this kick-ass cyberpunk adventure seems to be aiming for the same blockbusting box office heights as the Hunger Games franchise. While not exactly a misfire, Rodriguez and Cameron's joint effort lacks the zing and originality of their best individual work. Along with its U.S. launch the movie will be released in Dhaka’s Star Cineplex on February 14.

First alerted to Yukito Kishiro's original manga comics series by Guillermo del Toro back in the late 1990s, Cameron initially announced plans to adapt Alita in 2003, before the phenomenal success of Avatar took him down a different path. Spy Kids and Sin City creator Rodriguez came on board in 2015. But Cameron remains hands-on as producer and screenwriter alongside two fellow Avatar veterans, Jon Landau and Laeta Kalogridis.

Alita takes place roughly 500 years from now, in the dusty streets of Iron City, a ramshackle junkyard metropolis huddled in the shadow of the flying citadel of Zalem. Ever since a vaguely explained apocalyptic war centuries before, traffic between the two cities is now highly restricted. A kindly doctor who specializes in repairing half-human cyborgs using scavenged parts, Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) stumbles across the battered shell of a former robot superweapon, nursing her back to life and christening her Alita (Rosa Salazar) after his late daughter. A born-again innocent initially unaware of her bloodthirsty past, Alita soon starts emoting like a normal human teenager, even developing a crush on handsome young robo-junk dealer Hugo (Keean Johnson).

Of course, Alita's innocence cannot survive her growing awareness of the harsh, violent and cruel world all around her. As she begins to piece together her warrior past, she implores Ido to let her join his shadowy band of cyborg bounty hunters. But Alita has little idea of the danger she faces from Ido's ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and her Machiavellian new lover, Vector (Mahershala Ali), who controls the brutal gladiatorial sports tournament Motorball.


Alita opens strongly with a razzle-dazzle rush of inspired design flourishes and suspenseful clues. With Jackson's Weta Digital handling animation and visual effects, the first act is a sumptuous sensory experience. But the film's biggest CGI challenge is blending the digitally morphed, motion-capture version of Salazar's performance into an otherwise mostly live-action cast. Superhero and fantasy movies do this all the time, of course, and nobody has done more to perfect this technology than Cameron or Jackson. But the risk with Alita is the ‘uncanny valley’ effect, first identified by Japanese robotics scientists to describe that unintentionally creepy moment when artificial humans start to look too similar to the real thing.

Proud Mexican-American Rodriguez adds his personal mark from the first frame with the Iron City production design. But all this promising material unravels in the film's second half, when the plot becomes bogged down in clunky exposition, illogical sideways serves and action-heavy carnage. Alita's half-remembered past life as a cyborg soldier is too poorly explained to make much dramatic sense. Her sappy romance with Hugo quickly becomes a dreary slab of boilerplate young-adult soap opera.

Departing from the original Japanese manga, Cameron and Rodriguez make Alita's unlikely ambition to become a Motorball champion central to her character development, largely because it gives them an excuse to mount one of the film's most kinetic and bombastic action set pieces. Crucially, Alita contains scant traces of the warmth, wit and punky attitude that characterized most of Cameron's early works. Besides a couple of leaden one-liners, the screenplay is strikingly low on humor. Another oddly lazy touch is the background chorus of minor characters. This kind of by-the-numbers cyberpunk futurism looked pretty tired 20 years ago, and feels utterly redundant today.

Cameron and Rodriguez leave some key characters and unresolved plot points dangling at the end of Alita, brazenly signaling their sequel-minded, franchise-primed intentions. Their chutzpah is admirable, but perhaps, on this occasion, a little misplaced.