I didn’t know what to expect when I got invited to a press screening of Alita: Battle Angel. The original video animation source material, while dubbed and brought to the U.S in the 90’s, never enjoyed the same popularity as longer running icons like Dragon Ball Z or Sailor Moon.
It’s pretty standard dystopian future stuff. The clearly evil utopia of Zalem floats above the impoverished yet lively slum of Iron City. While society has regressed since a world war known as the Fall, robotics technology and weaponry is still thriving and morphing.
The movie starts by introducing us to Alita, her search for her memories, and her CGI-engineered body and movements. Alita is discovered in a Zalem scrapyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who reboots her cyborg core and human brain with a robot body.
At the top of the movie, the film looks like a standard sci-fi bildungsroman. The young, carefree Alita begins her new life by discovering the joys of eating sweet things like oranges and chocolate and playing with dogs. She plays games and hangs out with her fellow teens, even looking to be developing a close relationship with the hunky Hugo (Keean Johnson). Rosa Salazar’s Alita is reckless and headstrong in a way that feels refreshing for a female protagonist. There are shades of 2017’s Wonder Woman here for sure.
Don’t be fooled by Alita’s adorable moe eyes, however. This movie is twisted, violent, and very fun! Despite its PG-13 rating, Alita is not a movie for young kids or the faint of heart. There is A LOT of mutilating and slaughtering going on here for robots and humans alike. The film hits all the traditional beats of a YA fantasy novel–then disembowels them.
We quickly discover that Iron City is a pretty terrible yet multicultural place to live. Despite, the constant military presence and ban on guns, crime is pretty rampant. Most of Iron City’s citizens hope to make enough money to afford a permanent move to Zalem, whether that be through becoming champion of the sport Motor Ball (which should really be called Murder Ball), saving up money, or bribing the right Mahershala Ali. Still, outfitting yourself with the latest in weapon’s technology just puts a big target on your back since roving bandits will gladly rip you limb from limb for spare parts.
Alita soon discovers that her new father figure works as a lovable repairman by day, but moonlights as a killer bounty hunter at night. When caught in the crossfire of Dr. Ido’s battles, she realizes that she too is exceptionally good at killing.
The exact rules and limitations that cyborgs and other robots have go unexplained, which is okay because whenever the film delves into exposition about robot science or the history surrounding the Fall or Panzer Kunst (the mythical martial art with a German name that Alita somehow knows), it tends to drag.
Where Alita shines is in its extremely badass, wild fight sequences that really make you feel like you’re standing in the middle of an anime. I typically resent seeing movies in 3D, but the visuals here speak for themselves.
The movie has so many antagonists and climaxes, it will leave your head dizzy and your heart pounding. Mahershala Ali plays Vector, the manipulative king of Iron City’s underworld. He’s partnered with Jennifer Connelly as the icy Chiren, Dr. Ido’s scheming ex-wife.
Chiren despises Alita for being Ido’s new surrogate daughter and takes pleasure in equipping the girl’s would-be assassins with new weapons and armor. Jackie Earle Haley plays Grewishka, a gigantic evil cyborg that enjoys butchering girls. Ed Skrein plays Zapan, a corrupt hunter-warrior who also takes a murderous interest in Alita.
Alita soon discovers that while she might be a nigh-invincible battle angel, her new friends and family are relatively helpless by comparison.
When the movie’s cast was first announced, there were concerns that the film would engage in whitewashing, but the cast in fact has a large amount of diversity compare to many of its genre peers. Still, characters like Lana Condor’s bubbly Koyomi and Idara Victor’s enduring Nurse Gerhad felt underutilized.
Alita’s many leaps between robotic gore, slice of life cuteness, drama, and humor might be jarring to newcomers, but anime fans will recognize the continually swelling stakes and cliffhangers as an accurate reflection of the genre. The cinematic adaptation is also extremely faithful to its OVA source material.
James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez’s love child is definitely not perfect by any means, but I recommend it as a stunning visual experience and an exhilarating world-building adventure. It’s highly entertaining and something to be seen in theaters with your loudest, most excitable group of friends!