No one’s greater than the game.
This is a film twenty years in the making despite James Cameron being attached from the start. The story goes that Guillermo del Toro introduced the King of Hollywood to Yukito Kishiro‘s manga Gunnm and he fell in love with the book enough to give it permanent placement on his docket. Alita: Battle Angel was first thought to begin production after the demise of Cameron’s television show “Dark Angel” only to have him decide something else was more pressing. Then came the secretive technological undertaking that led him to Avatar and his focus never quite went back to the cyborg warrior. He still maintained he’d be the one to direct it, though, because the material was too good to pass up. I guess Pandora’s exotic world proved better.
Supposedly he brought Robert Rodriguez in to look at what he and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis had built (a full script and decade-plus of notes) hoping that the Texas-based computer effects-geek in his own right could pare it down. So impressed by the result, Cameron offered him the director’s chair as his Avatar trilogy ballooned into a five film series. From there came casting with Rosa Salazar earning the star-making opportunity to headline as Alita alongside Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, and Keean Johnson. And if you think that list seems a bit short on Asian actors considering the property’s Japanese heritage, you wouldn’t be wrong. But since Kishiro set things within a melting pot Kansas town called Iron City, any calls of whitewashing were squashed.
That’s not to say it isn’t weird the filmmakers kept Waltz’s father figure’s name as Dr. Dyson Ido. It is. The fact Lana Condor is the only Asian actor with a role of note almost makes you wonder why they even bothered. But I get it. Rodriguez took the futuristic setting of a slum-type surface world of rejected human/robot hybrids and instilled it with a Latino flair instead. With everything that’s happening in this country, that sort of inclusionary step in a blockbuster cannot be diminished—especially when those elitists looking down upon them from their floating metropolitan perch are white (see castoffs in Waltz and Connelly’s Chiren along with the surprise big bad who’s way too famous for anyone to think goggles could sufficiently disguise his identity).
The latter villain is known as Nova. He’s an enigma of sorts who makes those under his control fall in line and those who aren’t cower in fear. Nova is a literal puppet-master with the ability to see through the eyes of his minions whether they disposable heavies like Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) or his lieutenant on the ground Vector (Ali). They help him get rich through a game called Motor Ball—a brutal roller derby/robot wars mix where cyborgs are literally ripping each other apart to achieve champion status and the dream of ascending the social ladder to the utopic Tiphares above. We assume it’s a way to get the rabble in line (like The Hunger Games), but there’s little depth to understanding the contextual history.
This is actually a trend throughout the film. We learn about a war between humans and Martians three hundred years ago wherein good and evil wasn’t quite as black and white as many were taught. We get a crash course in the art of bounty hunting for credits despite there being giant indestructible sentries that could actually do police work if Vector wasn’t in effect paying criminals to kill criminals so he could send body parts up the food chain for profits. These are all highly politically motivated factoids that barely have their surface scratched when Alita isn’t dabbling in remembering the former and embracing the latter. So we’re shown this intricate environment where there’s obviously more than meets the eye and its all pushed to the background.
What more would you expect from a script that was streamlined from so much data? I’d actually be okay with the gaps in clarity and importance beyond Alita’s (rebirth) origin story if we knew more was coming. Sadly the blatant tease of a sequel with how things end is less a promise than passive aggressive challenge to audiences to give the studio money while absolving themselves of any guilt when it bombs. It’s therefore difficult not to constantly feel as though what we’re seeing is incomplete. Familiar faces don’t help matters because one has to believe Jeff Fahey, Eiza González, and Jai Courtney in an uncredited blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo came aboard thinking they’d have more to do than scowl. The only thing less substantial is the film’s burgeoning love.
It’s funny because it appears the filmmakers knew that pretending Alita and Johnson’s Hugo cultivated an authentically deep affection was flimsy at best. Why else would they go out of their way to make her desperate enough to physically remove her heart from her chest and try to give it to him while saying, “I’m an all or nothing kind of woman”? How can you include a scene so manipulative and over-the-top while still expecting us to believe their pain when confronted by impending doom? A one-eighty by Waltz’s Ido is just as bad. It’s as though he woke up one day, forgot his demands for Alita to be safe, and voluntarily made things so she can be as unsafe as possible. Nuance is apparently for deleted scenes.
I wish things were different because the look of the whole is breathtaking. From a hustle and bustle urban wasteland that puts Ready Player One‘s similar setting to shame to the seamless integration of human faces on fully mechanical bodies, there are very few uncanny valley moments. Even the whole “big eyes” aesthetic on Alita turns out okay because that attribute very specifically separates who she is compared to the other humanoid characters surrounding her. It’s again just a visual cue that has little in the form of contextual depth or concrete answers, but having a function nonetheless goes a long way towards accepting the singular incongruity. And the action scenes are a pulse-pounding thrill ride. Watching Alita take out a bar of hunter-killers isn’t cartoonish at all.
Salazar is great: her early innocence is pure and her steadily increasing anger always steeped in a sense of duty rather than vengeance. Waltz’s Ido is fleshed out best amongst the supporting players, but his motivations are often too clichéd to forgive his rapidly shifting complicity in her evolution. Skrein is fun and Ali a commanding presence while still being able to chew scenery whenever Nova takes control of his body. Connelly is mysterious enough to look past her changing allegiances, but it’s all about what’s next. Johnson is sadly a pawn, used and abused in the misguided thought that romantic emotional purpose is more potent than Alita being the last of her kind. That short-changing of political intrigue for shallow relationship melodrama is the film’s ultimate downfall.
 Keean Johnson (left) and Rosa Salazar (center) in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Rosa Salazar stars as Alita in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox; TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Rosa Salazar (Alita) and Keean Johnson (Hugo) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox. TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.