Are you a lover of movies big, small, and in between? Then subscribe to The Popcorn Diet, a podcast for those who live on a steady diet of movie theater popcorn and other movie snacks! Like, rate, & subscribe now on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
Please consider becoming a Patron and helping us make more cool movie content!
Alita: Battle Angel has traveled a long road to make it to the big screen. Originally a Japanese cyberpunk manga written by Yukito Kushiro in the 90s, the project was introduced to James Cameron by Guillermo del Toro sometime before the 2000s. Cameron and 20th Century Fox quickly snatched up domain names and made plans for a series with Cameron as the director. For the next 15 years, the project would swing in and out of various stages of limbo, being pushed back for other Cameron projects such as the Dark Angel TV series, the Aliens of the Deep documentary, Avatar, and its sequels. He never gave up on the project, and eventually enlisted director Robert Rodriguez to help take point on the film, with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.
I always find it interesting to compare the path a film takes to getting made with the final product. Is the resulting film clearly something special that earned nearly two decades of loyalty and attention from one of the most innovative filmmakers of our time? The answer is oftentimes more complex than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as is true with Alita. While it doesn’t feel like a massive leap forward in storytelling, filmmaking, or technology, it still turns out to be an immensely enjoyable, surprisingly badass piece of science fiction action filmmaking.
Alita introduces us to the world in the year 2563, on an Earth long since decimated by a massive war known as ‘The Fall’. Iron City serves as a hub for the lower class, workers, criminals, and hunter-warriors, who serve as bounty-paid law keepers. The floating city of Zalem serves as the wealthy brass ring that many reach for, trying to earn their way up as Zalem dumps its garbage below for others to salvage.
Amongst the garbage and scrap, scientist/cyborg doctor Dyson Ido finds the remains of a young, seemingly unique female cyborg, taking it back to his shop and rebuilding her. Named Alita by Ido, she doesn’t remember anything from her previous life, but as these stories tend to turn out, there is much more to her than what anyone realizes. After that, manipulation by the rich and powerful, Motorball matches, teen romance, revealing flashbacks, and lots of cyborg on cyborg violence ensue.
One of the greatest strengths of Alita that the cast is jam-packed with Oscar winners, relative newcomers, and world-building cameos. Above anyone else, Rosa Salazar makes a massive impact as Alita, even behind the CGI makeup of her performance. The film makes an effort to replicate the anime-like nature of larger eyes and pronounced features, but it never becomes a distraction from her performance as a sweet, kindhearted girl who can kill you in three seconds.
The other major newcomer, Keean Johnson, is admirable and charming as Hugo, a seemingly friendly street rat who of course harbors dark secrets and serves as Alita’s love interest. He’s good in the movie, but their YA romance certainly feels like the most unnatural thing in the movie, which is on considering it’s filled with insane cyborgs of various sizes.
Alita also boasts no less than a whopping FIVE Oscar nominees (and three winners!) to round out the supporting cast of adults in Alita’s life. Christoph Waltz gets to show off both his tender side as well as his action skills as Alita’s father/recreator, Dr. Ito. Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali are great but don’t have a ton to do as nefarious people in power lording over Motorball and Iron City, and Jackie Earle Hayley is wonderfully intimidating and evil, having his face and performance grafted onto a hulking cyborg killer called Grewishka. Likewise, Ed Skrein is awesome as a total douchebag of a hunter-warrior named Zapan, a cyborg with an ornately decorated robotic body but a pristine human face.
To spoil some of the cameos would be no fair, but it’s enough to say that there are plenty of recognizable actors that show up with their faces attached to radical looking cyborgs.
The production and character design by Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner is another strength, as the film builds us a futuristic world that feels real and lived in with rules and technology, but leaves enough on the edges for us to want more out of it. This is definitely a world that is fun to visit and live in and watch evolve, from the buildings to the multi-ethnic makeup of Iron City, from the cyborgs and their code to the game of Motorball itself.
Boy, let’s talk about the cyborgs. There are a lot of them, and they are awesome. Various pieces of blended biological and robotic entities come together to form a wide variety of awesome looking characters. Aside from the previously mentioned Zapan, there’s lady cyborgs made of bladed limbs, hulking brutes with razor sharp fingernail whips, and a freakin’ old cowboy cyborg named McTeague who’s whole gimmick is his crew of cyborg hunting dogs. There are giant behemoths with circular saws and spiked maces, and there are smaller, faster ‘borgs with multiple limbs and weapons. It’s a smorgasbord of awesome science fiction design and I am all here for it.
There’s also the matter of Motorball, the worlds fictional sport of choice. Motorball is basically roller ball mixed with a demolition derby where cyborg contestants race along a track in an effort to grab a metal ball and get it to the goal at the end. The film has a few central scenes and major plot turns based around Motorball runs, and they are some of the most exhilarating moments in the film. They are awesome action sequences directed with a steady hand by Rodriguez and featuring some stellar effects work.
Story-wise, Alita has moments of genuinely great world building, and others of not-so-great teen romance. There is enough shown about the world to bring us in and get the audience invested. Everything from cyborg bounty hunters to futuristic class warfare has the small details that matter. Alita and Dr. Ito are characters written wonderfully, showing us layers of history of pain and loss and hope. Their relationship is central to the film and it never feels strained or forced, which is a credit to all involved.
The central romance/coming of age moments between Alita and Hugo are cute, but just not that interesting. A few reveals feel clunky and don’t connect as well as they should, and then there’s the question of human/cyborg romances. As fleshed out as this world is, it doesn’t really address the idea, with only one character seemingly cyborg-ist about the whole thing. Much like many teen romances on the big screen, there is some clunky dialogue, but the pure on screen charm of Salazar as Alita pushes everything through. I can’t fault the film for being earnest in its efforts, even if those parts feel incredibly corny.
Alita is sprinkled with moments where we’re left hanging for certain plot threads to develop in a potential sequel, which has become more and more of a risky move for films trying to jump start a new franchise. To be clear, there’s enough of a complete story here to make it totally worthwhile, but with the future of the film up in the air, you can’t help feel worried that the ends of those strings will never be met. Mysterious villains run the risk of never being fleshed out, cameos designed to expand in future installments may just end up being weird cameos, and flashbacks to incidents of the past may never be fleshed out. That’s the risk Alita takes, and only history will tell if they’ll pay off.
Alita: Battle Angel reminds me in many ways of the underrated Hugh Jackman robot boxing film Real Steel, which seemed like a dumb sci-fi idea but turned into a surprisingly effective crowdpleaser that deserve a sequel. Much like that film, Alita features core relationships amongst most of its characters that feel authentic, has an absolutely fantastic array of well-designed sci-fi characters, and may leave those who showed up to watch forever wanting to revisit the world with no signs of a sequel. Hopefully, Alita can power through.
The Final Pop
Alita: Battle Angel is a thrilling ride with fantastic special effects, an impressive cast, and some truly great action sequences. The character designs, world building, and Motorball sequences should leave the audience wanting more, even if some of the more young romance aspects fall on the corny side.