Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein. Directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Considering how little the film industry ever learns, it’s no surprise that Alita: Battle Angel is not setting the box office on fire and striking a chord with people. This time it comes down to warring visions and ideas.
The basic story of the film is that in the future the poor live in the run down Iron City where good-natured Dr Dyson Ido repairs cybernetic bodyparts for little to no money, until he finds the core of a former warrior, gives her a new body, and a new life. Higher up, the rich live in Zalem, lorded over by the nefarious Nova who uses hardcore robots to impose his will.
Alita has a certain buffed up Pinnochio charm, but the film is not simply only a muddled mess of storytelling, mixed performances and annoying sequel baiting. Robert Rodriguez is a director who does things his way; he’s a writer-director-producer-cinematographer-composer-editor with occasional acting credits. His self called Mariachi style of filmmaking made him an indie legend, and his work ethic (he pumps at least a movie or two out a year, albums, launched a TV channel, collaborates with other people etc.) is to be admired – he’s also a very funny guy, just listen to a ‘director’s commentary’ from one of his films and you’ll see how witty he is.
Rodriguez’ filmography is basically a fifteen year old boy’s DVD collection. He’s done pretty much everything: El Mariachi, Desperado, The Faculty, From Dusk till Dawn, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, four Spy Kids movies, Machete, Sin City 1 & 2, Planet Terror and now this, and all his films have a kind of pulpy OTT fun vibe to them. It’s no surprise then to learn that he’s super besties with quentin tarantino (the two have worked together countless times).
But his kind of dumb B-Movie, kid staying up late watching movies he shouldn’t style clashes with the writing-producing of James Cameron. Cameron tells a story of being given the original manga as a gift from Guillermo del Toro shortly before Titanic became a colossal hit, and was always interested in making it as a movie. As deep sea diving and blue cat people took over his attention, he opted to produce with his partner Jon Landau and write the screenplay (he co-writes with Laeta Kalogridis who wrote Terminator Genisys).
Rodriguez, working from someone else’s screenplay, with big studio money, and only being the director ends up weighing down on the movie, giving it a machine feel with no personality. The environmental elements and love story that seem so classically Cameron clash with the smash ‘em up Rodriguez style.
Here, Rodriguez leaves all the other duties he’d normally do to other people – Bill Pope films it, Junkie XL scores, Stephen E. Rivkin edits. But even with only one job to do, the focus of the film ends up being pulled in several different directions.
To the film’s credit, Alita as a character is beautifully realised – the performance capture makes Rosa Salazar more akin to a Powerpuff Girl than Terminator, and her wide-eyed innocence is nicely juxtaposed with an inbuilt need to seek out danger. Salazar is great in the role and anchors a film where some of the cast seem into it, and others seem thoroughly bored.
The central romance between Alita and street kid Hugo (Keean Johnson) is very standard stuff. She’s a tough warrior with child-like innocence, he’s a conflicted hustler with a sideline is taking robots apart. It’s ironic that Cameron was critical of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman because his screenplay rips off scenes wholesale – the ice cream scene is redone with chocolate and so on.
The bigger actors – Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali – all look embarrassed that they have to be in this film, walking around in outlandish costumes and spouting semi-comic book lines about ‘the way things are supposed to be’. Waltz is good in his good guy parental role, but even a role against his usual typecasting can’t save him from looking as bored here as he did in Spectre.
Thank goodness then that Salazar gets to share scenes with Jackie Earle Haley and Ed Skrein as nasty cyborgs who chew the scenery like it’s got a caramel centre. Skrein does the charming evil cocky thing he did for Deadpool but fuses it with this kind of unhinged evil that really pops on screen – only his face is shown but the guy is both handsome and arrogant and it’s fun. Haley, on the other hand, is unrecognisable and goes at the film with the same insanity he took to Rorschach in Watchmen.
Rodriguez does also manage to slip in a few of his own personal casting choices Eiza Gonzalez has a small role (she started her US career on the TV series of From Dusk till Dawn – released exclusively on Netflix outside the US), while Michelle Rodriguez and Jeff Fahey have cameos.
Despite all of this and some fun fight scenes along the way, this all looks too much like Spy Kids: Game Over, a Rodriguez movie that no one looks on kindly, and after a while the CGI overload along with a headache inducing score from Junkie XL begins to grate on your nerves.
This is clearly a work-for-hire deal, and while Cameron seems to have the most hand in what happens on screen, there is something to be said about Salazar’s commitment to her performance capture role, even if the film decides against a worthy ending in place of one that tempts a sequel it will probably never deliver.