Robert Rodriguez is a filmmaker best known for delivering heightened stories about antiheroes tinged with western flare and an anything-goes attitude, wearing his influences (grindhouse, horror, exploitation) on his sleeve as clearly as longtime friend and fellow filmmaker Quentin Tarantino does. He’s also known for making movies on a shoestring budget (see also: his debut feature, El Mariachi) and creating a successful action franchise for kids. All of which is to say that his latest directorial effort, Alita: Battle Angel, doesn’t quite feel like a Rodriguez joint. Aside from the multicultural wild west-meets-future-dystopia setting of Iron City, Alita feels more like a James Cameron picture – not surprising considering the Avatar filmmaker’s involvement as executive producer.
Set some 500 years in the future, Alita – based on the popular Japanese manga – opens with skilled robotics doctor Dyson Ido (a subdued Christoph Waltz) discovering a cyborg “core” in a trash heap: Her head, brain, and heart are intact, but she is missing the rest of her body. Ido takes her home, rebuilds her with a body once intended for his paralyzed daughter (who was murdered several years prior), and names her Alita (after his dead daughter). While Alita (Rosa Salazar) remembers nothing of her past and where she came from, it’s clear that she was once a fighter of some sort; when those around her are physically threatened, she springs into action with an intense martial arts style known as “Panzer Kunst.” With the help of Ido and her new human friend and love interest Hugo (Keann Johnson), Alita slowly begins figuring out her origins – which have something to do with Zalem, the city that towers above and houses the wealthy and upper-tier survivors of a technological apocalypse that occurred 300 years ago.
Alita features the most prominent elements of the original manga, including the dangerous gladiator-style sport known as Motorball and the presence of deadly bounty hunters known as “hunter warriors” – both of which Alita becomes heavily involved with over the course of the film. There are enemies around every corner: the narcissistic, genetically modified hunter warrior called Zapan (Ed Skrein); the behemoth cyborg Grewishka (an unrecognizable Jackie Earle Haley); and Vector (Mahershala Ali), a criminal overlord of sorts who rigs Motorball champions and works under the orders of the mysterious Nova – a white-haired older guy who lives above.
Nova is one of the more curious aspects of Alita, particularly considering how closely James Cameron worked with the production. It’s interesting to note that, to date, Rodriguez’s arguably best films – From Dusk Till Dawn and Alita – have been in collaboration with prolific white male filmmakers; it’s long been heavily rumored that From Dusk Till Dawn was more of a Tarantino production than a Rodriguez one. With this in mind, the moments in which Nova assumes control of Vector (a man of color), seeing through his eyes and speaking through his voice, take on an unnerving metaphorical quality. It’s clear that Rodriguez intends for Vector to play devil to Nova’s godlike persona – Vector even has a line about how it’s better to rule in Hell below than serve up above. But given how much Nova resembles James Cameron, it’s hard to shake this other, admittedly bizarre possibility. (The identity of the actor playing Nova is revealed in the third act and is somehow even more mind-boggling than the notion of having Cameron play a version of himself.)
There is a good 45-minute portion in the middle of Alita in which the film takes on the scrappy, charming quality of some of Rodriguez’s better tendencies, and thus becomes an entertaining and engaging movie – and easily his best work in years. Alita’s personal arc is surprisingly complex and poignant, dealing with issues of bodily autonomy and female agency; notions that those who were once enemies can redeem themselves and become allies, that people are not always what they appear to be, and that there’s much more to being “human” than organic matter. Much of this is heavy-handed, but rather effective and occasionally thought-provoking.
Unfortunately, Alita takes several hard turns for the formulaic and predictable, especially with regards to Alita’s relationship with Hugo. It would be far more interesting and rewarding (and empowering, even) to see a female character who isn’t bogged down by her feelings for some lame guy. Hugo is more of a hindrance than a help at a certain point, which is around the same time that Alita just keeps going and refuses to end. The best parts of Alita involve the title character discovering herself and kicking six kinds of robot butt in the process. Salazar is magnetic in the role, often saving the film from itself in its more redundant and unnecessarily schmaltzy moments. And the digital effects are quite good – yes, even those large, cartoonish eyes, which become wildly expressive and empathetic in Salazar’s performance.
It’s not entirely truthful to say that Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t feel like much of a Rodriguez movie: It has a big, goofy heart and mixed with rather soapy drama, some excellent old school action flick one-liners, a keen multicultural perspective, a fully-realized world, and a couple of cameos so INSANE you wouldn’t even believe me if I spoiled them for you (but I won’t). For as much as there is to enjoy in Alita, there’s just as much that’s tedious and kind of underwhelming – especially from a filmmaker who built his name on taking risks and turning scraps into treasure. Maybe James Cameron’s influence wasn’t entirely for the best.