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Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ comes into her own via the awesome FX Special

Posted Feb 13, 2019 by Sarah Gopaul
‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is about a heroine in a futuristic city that didn’t realize it needed saving until she took down the worst perpetrators and mastered their main sport.
Rosa Salazar stars in  Alita: Battle Angel
Rosa Salazar stars in 'Alita: Battle Angel'
Twentieth Century Fox
As bio-mechanics and artificial intelligence improve, questions have been raised about what qualifies someone to be human. What if their body is 90% machine, but their brain is still intact? What about cyborgs or AI that demonstrate more love and compassion than many of their flesh-and-blood counterparts? It’s possible the definition of human will evolve over the next century. In the meantime, audiences have tales of fiction in which to explore the debate. In Alita: Battle Angel, a female cyborg is reawakened with no memories of her former life, but an innate attraction to conflict.
Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) salvages scrap machine parts and repairs mechanical injuries regardless of whether his patients can pay the fee. In Iron City, the population is probably equally split between people with and without machine upgrades so seeing someone that’s more machine than human has become commonplace. When Ido shockingly finds a living cyborg in a junkyard, he brings her home and gives her a body. Naming the teenage amnesiac Alita (Rosa Salazar), Ido dotes on her like his own daughter. While exploring the city, she meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a young scrapper who dreams of going to Zalem — an elite metropolis that floats above their own. But something sinister is stalking the streets, killing women and stealing people’s mechanical bits.
Alita is remarkable in every way. She’s smart, sweet… and an exceptionally skilled fighter. Consequently, it’s somewhat irritating to watch the men in the film lead her around and make decisions for her throughout the first act. Ido pushes her towards a normal life, but even without remembering who she is there are parts of her personality she can’t ignore. Hugo, on the other hand, isn’t afraid of who she might’ve been and steers her towards her past by offering to help her investigate who she was since she’s a newborn in this world. But she adapts quickly and begins navigating the local politics in search of allies against a common enemy known as Nova. Without a police force, Hunter Warriors are tasked with protecting the city so Alita signs up at the first opportunity.
The other key element of this story is the popularity of the realm’s only sport: Motorball. It’s a close replica of Rollerball, except the players are almost all machine, upgraded to put the hurt on their opponents. The ultimate prize they’re all vying for is a one-way ticket to Zalem, so everyone wants to be no. 1. Of course, there’s a lot of unsportsmanlike conduct on and off the track as they all try to outdo each other, and sponsors demand the best equipment (and weapons) for their players.
The special effects are surprisingly seamless. Watching the film in IMAX was a visual delight, though how much was really enhanced by the 3D is questionable. The city and its part-robot inhabitants are mesmerizing. Alita’s eyes are larger than most people’s, but her expressions always appear natural and never comical. There are countless machines that only feature a human head, which allows for an equal number of creative designs that still feel like they belong in the same world in spite of their differences. Every inch of the aesthetic was thought-out with painstaking detail that makes it all seem real and, in turn, helps bring its characters to life.
Co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez, this adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga series, Gunnm, embraces the cyberpunk aesthetic and (eventually) Alita’s power. Salazar is incredibly competent as both a woman with an imposed innocence and a fierce, unstoppable killing machine. The villains are played by Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Ed Skrein and Mahershala Ali. Each of the characters are inherently evil, though some are better at hiding it than others. Unfortunately, Ali seems underused in this picture as the Oscar-winning actor is often just a puppet for a distant overseer.
This is a gripping science fiction narrative that combines many elements audiences have seen before to create a fresh and exciting tale that somewhat doubles as an accelerated coming-of-age story. Alita’s journey isn’t finished and viewers will likely be anticipating the next chapter as soon as the credits start to roll.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz and Jennifer Connelly