A long-time James Cameron project, the king of the world handed over the reins of Alita: Battle Angel to Austin-based genre specialist Robert Rodriguez, while staying on as producer and co-screenwriter. The choice of director makes absolute sense, as both are positively evangelical about digital filmmaking and effects-driven storytelling.
Based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm (which translates as ‘Gun dream’) and popularised in the west as Battle Angel Alita, (the movie adaptation opting for its own variation in Alita: Battle Angel), the plot is a meeting together and spin on Pinocchio and RoboCop. The specific influence of Paul Verhoeven’s beloved satire, as well as his Arnie-starring follow-up Total Recall, is apparent throughout. It’s there in Mahershala Ali’s Michael Ironside-esque henchman and his connection to the mysterious Big Bad (Ed Norton in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo), and very strongly present in the production design, as well as the parade of chrome-armoured cyberpunk mechanical-humans and ghoulish surgery-based imagery.
A classic adventure yarn about the spiritual and intellectual journey to a pivotal moment of awakening and full consciousness, Rosa Salazar is astonishing as Alita. Performed in motion capture, the actor is key to the success of Alita: Battle Angel. If she failed to appeal and convince, the film would sink like the Titanic. Cameron and Rodriguez knew this going in and struck gold with Salazar. A virtual unknown, she gives a nuanced and engaging portrait of a mysterious young robo-woman finding her place in a post-apocalyptic world.
With those Margaret Keane big eyes and Alice’s “curiouser and curiouser” inquisitiveness, Alita develops into a charming heroine full of heart and possessing a beguiling sincerity. Also, Rodriguez was smart enough not to let the eye-candy world-building and action sequences quota get in the way of the storytelling nor Salazar’s role. Scenes with Christoph Waltz, as the Geppetto figure to Salazar’s Pinocchio, are downright adorable and the pair share an affecting father-daughter relationship, which is played note-perfect (Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido is an early contender for Movie Dad of the Year.)
In between rounds of mesmerising, stunningly choreographed ass-kicking, Alita’s experiences focus on navigating her new environment, meeting the people and robots in it, and, like an innocent child, not initially realising, grasping or appreciating Iron City – an awe-inspiring junkyard landscape deceptively bathed in rich golden light – is a place full of existential sorrows, social horror, body horror, burning injustice and poverty. Not without flaws, but nothing to get too worked up about, Alita: Battle Angel is cynicism-free, first-class popcorn entertainment spearheaded by a knockout performance from Salazar. A star is born.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn