Alita Battle Angel movie review: James Cameron’s Avatar follow-up is just as visually stunning

Alita: Battle Angel
Director – Robert Rodriguez
Cast – Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson
Rating – 3.5/5

In the span of a couple of months, two of the biggest blockbuster filmmakers of our times – Peter Jackson and James Cameron – have handed over the reins to their long-gestating passion projects to others. While Jackson hired longtime collaborator and first-time director Christian Rivers to helm Mortal Engines, Cameron, who has decided he will only direct Avatar movies from now on, got Robert Rodriguez to spearhead Alita: Battle Angel, a film he came very close to directing himself.

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And although the former indie maverick Rodriguez has sort of made it a point never to repeat himself, Alita is unlike anything he has ever done. It has more similarities to Cameron’s films – both technically and story-wise – than the curiously diverse movies Rodriguez has made in his career.

Watch the Alita: Battle Angel trailer here

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Every penny of Alita’s reported $200 million budget – more than double Rodriguez has ever worked with – is up on the screen. Like most dystopian science-fiction films – Alita is based on a popular manga series – it devotes a large amount of time to setting the table. It is the duty of several characters to spout expositional dialogue that brings the narrative – much like a song-and-dance number in a Bollywood movie – down to a grinding halt.

At the risk of sounding like one of these characters, here’s a gist of the film’s dense plot. Alita is set around 300 years after a war that destroyed most of the world, and created a chasm between the rich and the poor that only increased with time. Large cities, floating in the sky thanks to the marvels of engineering, were created to further intensify these divisions, serving as ivory towers for the oppressed to gaze at with dreams of a better future.

It is a grimy, dirty world populated by a multi-ethnic crowd, where simple chocolate sellers could rub shoulders with elite bounty hunters. What unites most people in this future dystopia, however, is that they’ve all been augmented in some fashion by technology. Everyone has a mechanical arm, or a flashy gizmo for an eye, or a super-powered leg.

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But even more than the film’s wonderfully detailed CGI environments and character designs, its most impressive creation is Alita herself. And as played by Rosa Salazar, she is a beacon of decency in this post-apocalyptic world.

Alita, as one character conveniently tells us, has the face of an angel and a body ready for battle. She is discovered, discarded in a scrap yard, by Dr Dyson Ido (played in an unusually positive turn by Christoph Waltz), who like Dr Frankenstein reconstructs her and brings her back to life. Like Jason Bourne, Alita has no memory of her past life, but soon discovers hidden skills.

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Salazar is quite phenomenal in the role, bringing great humanity to a character that is, conservatively speaking, 90% robot. Her unflinching optimism and an inbuilt desire to be good is rare in modern blockbusters, which seem to be more fascinated by anti-heroes and grey characters.

Hiring Salazar for the part, along with a strong Latinx supporting cast, was probably Rodriguez’s most important contribution to the film, in addition to the strong allusions to Donald Trump’s politics of division.

Alita is let down, funnily enough, by its biggest draw. James Cameron has always had a great sense of story structure, but is notoriously poor at writing dialogue. A lot of what is spoken in Alita: Battle Angel is as clunky as some of machines.

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Word on the street is that the film is poised to lose many millions for 20th Century Fox, putting future plans in doubt. The film in no way plays it coy about wanting to continue Alita’s story – it even sets up a villain for the sequel, played by someone you wouldn’t expect. But if there’s one thing we should have learnt by now, it is that we can never count James Cameron out.

After all, it was he who once said, “We laboured the last six months in the absolute knowledge that the studio would lose $100 million. It was a certainty.” He was talking about Titanic.

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