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Alita: Battle Angel

Let’s talk for a moment about Tilly Lockey. As an infant, Lockey lost both her arms to a bad case of meningitis. Now thirteen years old, she’s toured as an ambassador for amputees of all ages, an activist for meningitis patients, an inspirational speaker, a spokesperson for Open Bionics, and a model. And it turns out that one James Cameron is a big fan.

The filmmakers of Alita: Battle Angel gifted Lockey with a brand-new pair of state-of-the-art bionic hands, before welcoming her to the red carpet premiere of the movie. Cameron and his colleagues helped introduce a whole new audience to this remarkable young lady, sending out her message that amputees and the differently abled are just as valued and loved and capable as anyone else.

For my part, I’d like to keep the signal boost going. And so, with all humility and respect, this review is dedicated to Ms. Lockey and the wonderful causes she’s worked so hard for.

Alita: Battle Angel is one of those passion projects that’s been in development for so long, it seemed like the movie itself would never get released. Then again, James Cameron isn’t exactly known for cranking out a new movie every other year. Both Alita and Avatar gained traction at roughly the same time, but Avatar came together first and Cameron apparently devoted himself to producing Avatar movies for the rest of his life (and maybe longer).

Thus Cameron handed the reins to Robert Rodriguez, a respectable auteur in his own right. And it’s clear that Rodriguez was piggybacking off the previous development work to make the film that Cameron wanted to — Rodriguez might have gotten the director credit, but James Cameron’s fingerprints are all over this one.

Let’s take it from the top. Our stage is set in the distant future, about 300 years after an interplanetary war between Mars and Earth. This war is called “The Fall”, presumably because Earthlings lived on giant floating cities that all came crashing down in the war. The only one left is the city of Zalem, a wealthy utopia that floats above the industrial wasteland of Iron City.

(Side note: In the manga this was based on, Iron City was supposedly located somewhere in the former United States. So culturally appropriate casting in this Japan-to-Hollywood film adaptation isn’t an issue for once!)

Our story begins with Dr. Dyson Ido (Cristoph Waltz), a surgeon/mechanic who specializes in attaching and maintaining cybernetic prostheses. He’s in the scrapyard one day, presumably foraging for new parts that got tossed down with the trash from Zalem. And in the trash, he finds a cybernetic head and torso with a fully-intact human brain and a heart running on powerful tech that’s been lost for centuries.

Dyson attaches the mysterious head to a cybernetic body he had lying around (I won’t go into details here). When our cyber-girl (played in mocap by Rosa Salazar) wakes up with no memory of who or what she is, Dyson takes her in and names her “Alita”. Naturally, she takes a strong interest in learning about the world around her (amnesiacs are great for exposition) and learning more about who she is. And naturally, there are some people up in Zalem wondering why this girl is upright and walking when they tossed her in the trash, and they’re eager to rectify that.

To start with, I’m glad to have seen this one in 3D IMAX because… well, that’s how James Cameron makes movies. Nothing less than the full premium viewing will be enough to take in every last detail on the screen, and this movie is immaculately detailed. The world-building here is astounding in scope, with painstaking attention given to every last corner of the production. The CGI and practical effects are seamless, the motion capture glistens with polish, the sound design and score are phenomenal, and the 3D looks fantastic.

And of course all of that extends to the fight sequences as well. From the bar fight battle royale to the high-speed Motorball death race (think roller derby by way of Nascar with 26th-century bionic tech), every single action scene blew me through the back of my seat. Beautifully shot, with clever use of speed-ramping and ingenious uses of the cyberpunk setting. The choreography and editing kept everything moving at a lightning pace, but never fast enough to lose track of what was happening. Beautifully done.

Then we have the cast. Rosa Salazar is a revelation as Alita, bringing a ton of heart and badass attitude to this adolescent weapon with an identity crisis. I was also impressed with Keean Johnson, who makes something memorable and sympathetic out of what could have been a thankless love interest role.

But the real star here is Cristoph Waltz. I’m sorry to be limited by how much I can say without spoilers, but suffice to say that he serves perfectly well as the true heart of the film. As Alita’s father figure in loco parentis, and in his dilemmas with regard to Alita’s preternatural fighting abilities, there’s a strong character-motivated reason why everything he does is far more complicated than it seems.

This is a surprisingly deep and conflicted character motivated by painful emotional scars, determined to make sure that Alita grows into something greater than he is. This is a fantastic character, elegantly played by Waltz at the top of his game, and he’s a great enough scene partner to make Salazar’s performance that much better.

Naturally, this is a movie about identity and growing up, as Alita has to figure out who she was even as she weighs that against figuring out who she wants to be. And of course there’s an element of sociopolitical conflict, given the floating city at the center of the setting. But I was honestly far more interested in the comparison between cyborgs and humans, in that when you get right down to it, we’re all just a collection of parts. It’s a theme expressed in subtle ways that I found quite fascinating in execution.

So are there any problems? Whoo boy.

Mahershala Ali has already caught a lot of heat for his portrayal of an Iron City crime lord. Critics say that he gives a bad performance, and I don’t agree. He’s a talented actor and he’s clearly doing everything he can to put in a decent performance. The problem is, he’s got nothing to work with.

Zalem floats in the sky, taking in all the food and tech created by Iron City, and we never learn what Zalem gives in return except for cast-off scrap. We don’t know the first thing about what’s going on up there, why everyone wants to go up there, or why nobody’s allowed up there. Zalem commands our antagonists, but we never learn what the city is trying to accomplish or why. Even with regard to The Fall, we never learn what Earth and Mars were fighting over or why any of it could still be relevant over 300 years later.

So many characters are motivated by either getting to Zalem or by serving Zalem, and it’s all for naught because we never learn the first thing about Zalem. I get that the filmmakers are trying to be mysterious and leave loose ends for sequels to pick up. (Also, manga stories are so notoriously long that of course there’s too much exposition from the source material to fit into two hours.) But when such a central element of the story and the characters’ motivation is so defiantly vague, you’re left with a story and characters that feel incomplete.

Jennifer Connelly fares better than most, as an emotionally conflicted scientist who was exiled from Zalem and is looking for a way to get back. That, at least, is an understandable motivation. We’ve also got Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley on hand as a couple of cartoonish hate sinks so thinly defined that they don’t even need any motivation beyond money and ego.

The bottom line is that Alita: Battle Angel has a cast of superbly developed lead characters against a nebulous antagonist with no defined motivation or agenda. This leads to a lopsided central conflict we have no reason to invest in, which in turn leads to a fundamentally broken plot. It’s clear that the filmmakers put all their money and effort into the exquisite world-building, the dazzling visuals, and the breathtaking action scenes, rather than applying that same level of ambition and creativity into a compelling script. Which is pretty standard for a James Cameron flick nowadays.

This was absolutely worth a big screen viewing with all the premiums, don’t get me wrong, but be sure to set your expectations accordingly.

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