May 15, 2020
Alita: Battle Angel (2016)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Stars: Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali

What it's about. Set in the 26th century. Long-ago wars have devastated Earth. Survivors have come to Iron City. Some are entirely human, while others are partly to fully robotic. Above Iron City is Zalem, a mysterious floating city. There is only one way for Iron City residents to move to the presumably nicer Zalem, and that is to be the grand champion in this film's version of Rollerball, a violent game dominated by cyborgs.

Zalem dumps its metallic scrap into an Iron City junkyard. This is scoured by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), a kindly middle-aged man who ekes out a living repairing cyborgs. He has a double life, though, as a lone bounty hunter. Ido's assistant is Idara Victor. His ex-wife, a medical doctor from Zalem, is Chiren (Jennifer Connelly).

Ido finds a partial robot in the junkyard. Surprisingly, the robot has a living human brain and a working futuristic heart. The robot is female, and is repaired and completed by Ido using a robot body intended for his late daughter. Ido names her Alita (voiced by Rosa Salazar), and intends her to live with him as a substitute daughter.

Alita soon has other plans. She is befriended by Hugo (Keean Johnson), a young man of the street. Their romance predictably blooms, and she is initiated into his street gang. Alita quickly proves her worth, and draws the interest of Zalem's reclusive ruler Nova (Edward Norton), particularly after she acquires a new extraterrestrial robot body.

Nova commands his cynical right hand man, Vector (Mahershala Ali), to kill Alita so that he can utilize the technology of her construction. But by this time, Alita's fighting skills are formidable, and it appears that even the biggest and baddest robots are not her equal.

The story is based on a series of graphic novels by Yukito Kishiro.

How others will see it. The most notable name behind Alita: Battle Angel is James Cameron (Avatar), who serves as producer and co-writer. Robert Rodriguez, best known for his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, is the director.

The budget for the film was a remarkable 170M. Given that, the U.S. box office gross of 85M must have been a disappointment. But the worldwide gross was 400M, and it is clear that a sequel is in the works. The movie drew significant attention on the festival circuit, and earned a Best Science Fiction Film nomination at the Saturn Awards. But the most prestigious film festivals, such as the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA, all passed on the movie, not even ceding nods for its visual effects.

No matter. At, the movie already has a big 200K user votes. The user rating of 7.3 out of 10 is good, though short of outstanding. It is a minor surprise that viewers over 45 grade the film slightly higher than viewers under age 30. The user reviews are mostly positive: "great movie experience", "entertaining from start to finish", "the next Fifth Element but better!" And certainly less campy.

How I felt about it. Jennifer Connelly is dull as dishwater here, and it is difficult to buy Christoph Waltz as a bounty hunter of oversized slice-and-dice cyborgs. There is a discrepancy between Hugo's gentle personality and his nighttime activities as a mutilator of cyborgs on Vector's wantlist. Big-eyed Alita is not only the cutest cyborg in Iron City, she appears to be about the only cute humanoid in Iron City.

No one is surprised when the golly-gosh Alita suddenly evolves from daddy's good girl to kick-ass warrior. Not even her (surrogate) daddy. The real wonder is what she was doing in a junkyard, to begin with. Or why her robot body remained on a Martian spacecraft that should have been excavated long ago. But then there wouldn't be a story.

Despite its silly aspects, this movie provides a lot of good comic book fun, and is much better than most movies stocked with DC or Marvel villains and superheroes. Both Rodriguez and (especially) Cameron have proven their talents in prior films, and demonstrate their skills here to worthwhile ends.