Alita: Battle Angel (2019) Review

It sure took Alita: Battle Angel a long time to materialise. But after over 15-year wait since its official announcement of adapting Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga series into the big screen back in 2003, it has finally arrived… and the result gave me, should I say, a mixed feeling.

But let’s get to the brief synopsis beforehand: Set in the 26th century, Alita: Battle Angel follows the titular cyborg played in a mo-cap performance by Rosa Salazar, who is first discovered in a scrapheap by Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). After rebuilding her with a new body, he starts treating her like his own daughter. But Alita soon discovers she actually has a past that proved she’s more than just an ordinary cyborg.

Despite written by James Cameron himself with additional input by Laeta Kalogridis (best known as an executive producer for Avatar and Shutter Island), the overall story feels like it’s a few decades too late. Or more like a relic of the past as if the screenplay has been written for so long (technically, it was since Cameron originally wrote a 186-page draft long before Robert Rodriguez took over the project) without retooled it to make things fresh or relevant for today’s generation. Clichéd is also the right word to describe the way the story is told, complete with generic YA-like love story between Alita and her love interest, Hugo played by Keean Johnson. Basically, if you have seen enough sci-fi movies like Alita: Battle Angel, you can basically predict where is this going.

Although it would be nice to see Cameron oversee his pet project himself as the director of the movie (you can thank his (unnecessary) upcoming Avatar sequels for that), Robert Rodriguez’s direction remains engaging enough on his own. With a hefty budget reportedly costing US$200 million to make, the money is thankfully well-spent on both special effects and production values. The CG itself is both top-notch and seamless regardless of the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Iron City or the cyborg characters, with the mo-cap Alita — and particularly, her expressive manga eyes (though I admit it takes some time to get used to watching them) — deserves a special mention here.

And given Rodriguez’s extensive background in the action genre, he doesn’t disappoint in delivering some of the thrillingly-staged action sequences enlivened by Bill Pope’s fluid camerawork and Tom Holkenborg’s pulsating score. This is especially evident in notable set-pieces including Alita’s one-on-one fight against the gigantic enemy cyborg Grewishka played by Jackie Earle Haley, as well as the brutal Motorball (an obvious inspiration of Norman Jewison’s 1975 cult classic of Rollerball) game sequence. Not to mention watching this in IMAX 3D is nothing short of spectacular — the kind of cinematic experience worth paying for, thanks to the movie’s impeccable visual quality that it would be a crime if this doesn’t land an Oscar nomination next year in the Best Visual Effects category.

As for the cast, Rosa Salazar finally gets to prove her worth as a leading actress playing the titular character as the headstrong Alita. While she is the centre of the attention here, the supporting actors are mostly adequate at best. Despite enlisting a trio of Oscar-winning actors (Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly), it’s kind of a pity that they don’t get to flesh out much on their respective characters.

Even though Alita: Battle Angel has its fair shares of shortcomings, director Robert Rodriguez alongside co-writer and producer James Cameron still manage to bring enough entertainment values into their big-screen version of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga series. Here’s hoping if this movie manages to make enough money in the worldwide box office, they are able to improve better in the future instalment(s).

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