Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel,’ Sci-Fi Pop Candy

dfn_alita_battle_angel_ver3_poster-300Adapting James Cameron’s pet project, Robert Rodriguez conjures up a lotta wham, a lotta bam, and a few thank-yous.

In sum, Alita: Battle Angel hits my sci-fi pop-candy sweet spot. Reportedly, Cameron nursed a desire to make the project for some years before it finally gained traction. Now past 60 years of age, Cameron reluctantly realized that he will be tied up perfecting Avatar sequels for the foreseeable future, and so Robert Rodriguez was hired on to helm the adaptation of Yukio Kishiro’s manga.

The film, scripted by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, fits comfortably inside Rodriguez’ wheelhouse, beyond his interest and expertise in mixing live-action and animation. The comparison to his own filmography that springs instantly to mind is Planet Terror, his half of Grindhouse. which featured Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer who loses half a leg in a zombie apocalypse and survives only after an assault weapon is attached as a replacement for her missing limb.

Though he remains well-known for his very adult-oriented Sin City and Machete films, Rodriguez is also fully capable of making family-friendly entertainment, as in his Spy Kids series. With an apparently more expansive budget and the talents of cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Rodriguez fashions a lively world filled with visual wonders.

Rosa Salazar stars as a young woman in the 26th century who is discovered in a trash heap by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). He is a scientist who specializes in robotics, which is very important since a large percentage of humans have been salvaged with mechanical parts in the years since “The Fall,” when the planet was devastated.

Named by Dr. Ido, after his deceased daughter, Alita’s brain is her only surviving human body part; she is 99% cyborg when the good doctor finds her. Suffering from total amnesia, she seeks to learn how to live, though it quickly becomes apparent that she is well-trained to be something special. What, exactly, that might be is a mystery to Alita, a mystery that nonetheless draws surprising interest from others.

The specifics of the plot play second fiddle to the marvelous visual wonders, usually making excellent use of the wide screen format. To my recall, that is another element that marks Alita: Battle Angel as something different for director Rodriguez. He has often shot and edited his own films with a quick and dirty aesthetic, which has contributed to their pulpy appeal.

A more elegant, shall we say, approach is evident in Alita: Battle Angel, which makes the film a sheer delight to drink in on a big screen. It places Alita and her friends (and enemies) within a landscape that is constantly percolating with unexpected delights.

It’s very much a comic-book adaptation, as much or more so than Sin City, and it remains true to its origins. Like the Sin City films, the narrative of Alita: Battle Angel eventually suffers from its secondary status; as the novelty and splendor of the eye-filling wonders fade, the story is not sufficiently propulsive to command attention.

Eventually, we must also confront the perplexing decision to make Alita’s eyes resemble those of a stereotypical anime character of the past. She is the only character in the film with this characteristic, and it remains distracting throughout, as much as anything because it’s never explained! (At least, to my memory, and trust me, I was paying attention.)

Even with the distraction of ‘big eyes,’ Alita: Battle Angel remains a film I am glad to have seen on a big screen, where speculations on a wildly imaginative future can be appreciated more fully.

The film is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.