I had the great pleasure of revisiting director Robert Rodriguez’s visually arresting graphic novel adaptation Sin City recently, and what made it such an enlightening rewatch is that is pairs perfectly with the director’s latest demonstration of VFX mastery – Alita: Battle Angel. These movies couldn’t be more different in content, style and amount of blood geysers, but what they both prove in equal measure is that Rodriguez, more so than many other mainstream filmmakers, has an unparalleled passion for taking the newest and boldest in cinematic visual effects and making you appreciate how far they can go how richly they can bring people and places to life.
Alita – long, long-gestating movie from producer James Cameron and Jon Landau based on the manga series “Gunnm” by Yukito Kishiro – resembles in its foundation many other graphic novel/manga/comic book adaptations. It’s filled with exposition and world-building clearly meant to be explored in future movies, all at the expense of bogging down the first movie’s story in the process. But what makes Alita such an alluring, gripping experience lies outside the story and in the wonder in front of your very eyes – in this case – the big eyes of the title character herself.
An enhanced cyborg with a long history of kicking ass across the world (and on the moon!), but no memory of it, Alita (Rosa Salazar) is brought back to life by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) after years and years spent in a garbage heap. Upon her rebirth she starts from the ground up, a doe-eyed, innocent young woman who’s fascinated by the massive, richly-detailed futuristic world around her, even falling in love with the first boy she sees (more on that later). But as she begins to uncover more about her past, and discovers she’s an enhanced weapon model capable of all sorts of robotic kung-fu, she assumes her role as a confident – yet still flawed – warrior who fears no man, whether he be made of meat or metal.
Performed using motion capture by Salazar, Alita is a meticulously crafted, highly-engaging work of brilliant mo-cap effects, a groundbreaking digital art form that’s given us characters like Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes movies (Andy Serkis) and Thanos in the recent Avengers movies (Josh Brolin). While her very big eyes (so as to pay respect to the designs in the manga) may downright unnerve some viewers, I found myself endlessly entranced by all the nuance brought to life in the effects. Her eyes move with curiosity or intensity; her face has emotion and; never are the complexities of character lost in the rendering. Salazar delivers a career-launching performance here, naturally progressing Alita’s evolution from innocent to battle angel, and never is any of her soul lost behind expensive visual effects.
These visuals also had the potential to look like a pile of colorful goo when it came to many, many scenes of swift combat and action that Alita thrusts herself into. While an early game of Motorball – a vicious sport the movie centers around a bit too much – does look a tad choppy, when it gets to the bigger, more undeniably badass moments Rodriguez once again demonstrates his skill in the action arena. Many will flock to the theater based on teases in the trailers of Alita leaping around a bar, roundhouse kicking various bounty hunters, or diving through an assault of tentacle-like blades, and taking on massive cyborgs during a very intense round of Motorball. All live up to expectations, with the director giving the visuals room to breathe as the lead character flip, dodges, kicks, punches and everything else a motion capture character has never quite done on screen. Doing so around other cyborgs makes for a whirlwind of metal and sharp weaponry, but among the chaos, there are distinct characters who stand out and are able to make the action feel varied and unrepetitive.
This is where I appreciate Rodriguez most as a director who can not only handle visual effects and churn out some wild, bonkers action set pieces, but also get you to fall in love with the small details enhanced by breathtaking and expensive digital effects. In this world set 500 years in the future, many people have cybernetic enhancements, and each new character – whether they just have a robotic arm or are fully encased in hardware with only their human face intact – is brimming with detail that made me want to pause the movie and examine all the little mechanisms. I walked away loving the world in Alita, for all its small character moments enhanced with fantastic motion capture work and the brazen set pieces that push the boundaries of what crazy can look like in a movie with a nigh-$200 million budget.
So, yes, Alita: Battle Angel is a triumph on a visual and action level, promising on a theater-going experience that demands to be had with the biggest screen you can find. But still, there’s a story and numerous other characters to examine, and for the most part, none of them are up to snuff with the sci-fi action.
Salazar is great as Alita, and after her, another notable performance is from Waltz as Dr. Ido, a reminder that while he can play charmingly sinister characters in movies like Inglorious Bastards he is equally capable of playing a warm, loving father figure. There are ultimately far too many characters here, though, all designed to expand this big, bold world without ever really leaving their mark. There’s Jennifer Connolly’s Chiren, the ex-wife of Ido who has gone to the Dark Side of cyborg enhancement, and Mahershala Ali as the main baddie, Vector, yet another actor capable of so much more than the monotone, business-savvy villain.
The non-Alita character we spend the most time with is her love interest, Hugo, a motorbike-driving, leather jacket-wearing cool dude with wavy hair who could easily make the cover of Tiger Beat 2525. While he supports Alita on her journey of self-discovery, we also learn he’s a terrible person who sells scrap parts from living cyborgs to earn enough money to go up to the floating utopia of Zalem. While he “changes” after meeting Alita, he simply exists to be that first mistake for Alita as she falls too hard in love despite his obvious, glaring flaws. Like a young person who believes their first love is their only love, Alita never questions him or his actions, and is even willing to, literally, give up her own heart so he may sell it for money. I don’t dislike the usage of the love angle for the sake of motivating Alita as a character, but the dynamic itself is less than engaging given Hugo’s utter lack of personality and his general uselessness. Though I think designed to be a problematic relationship, the biggest problem is that we may have to wait for more movies before she – if ever – realizes what an empty-headed doofus he really is and that she never really needed him for anything.
The story that makes up this two-hour movie involves a vicious sport with the same name of what must be the title of a straight-to-VHS 80s flick and every character talking about getting to go up to the magical city of Zalem, but this all seems like fodder for future movies that may or may not be made. The filmmakers may like to think this movie can stand on its own – and as a piece of entertainment it can – but as a complete story, it indeed leaves too much unanswered and introduces a major actor in a major role meant to be explored more in a sequel. While Alita pushes the boundaries of motion capture effects, it’s woefully predictable in its attempts at franchise building.
That being said, there’s no doubt the fun I had with Alita more that trumps the story and character flaws, especially given that the main character – the only one we should really fall in love with – is a complex, evolving, and richly-realized character worth rooting for. If you want to see a popcorn flick with eye-popping visuals and incredible action, there’s no better movie to see this season that Alita: Battle Angel, and while you may leave scratching your head over plot details, it will be instantly followed up with, “Yeah, but didn’t THAT look incredible?”