Alita: Battle Angel has been a pet project for James Cameron since the early ’00s, but having since become consumed with all things Avatar, he’s placed Robert Rodriguez at the helm. And while a collaboration between these two might sound like a strange mix, the pair’s differing styles manage to breathe dynamic life into this big screen adaptation of Yukito Koshiro’s cyberpunk manga series.
Rodriguez moves from Sin City to Iron City – a post-apocalypse metropolis in the 26th century where robotics specialist Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a living cyborg core whilst foraging in a scrapheap, and recreates the being in the image of his dead daughter, Alita.
Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no memory of her past, but that doesn’t seem to concern her. She’s happy to hang out with her hunky new boyfriend Hugo (Keean Johnson), eat chocolate and learn to master the local sport, Motorball. But when threats arrive in the form of cyborg assassins and bounty hunters, Alita’s kick-ass nature comes to the fore, turning her into a whirling dervish of destruction.
Salazar gives Alita a lot of personality – she’s more likeable and less complex than Ghost in the Shell‘s Major. And while the teen romance angle adds to the character’s humanity, it’s also a clunky distraction amidst the knockout action scenes and worldbuilding – which is what you’ve paid to see.
Waltz is good as the father figure who’s more Geppetto than Frankenstein, while Mahershala Ali, as the Motorball boss and resident villain, is underused in a role that’s a better fit for Samuel L. Jackson.
Alita: Battle Angel has been assembled from parts of RoboCop, Rollerball, Elysium and Blade Runner, with all the CGI grandeur of a James Cameron production and some of the grit of Rodriguez.
With its big eyes set on a sequel/franchise, the choppy plot raises more questions than it answers, but the movie delivers where it counts. There’s no doubt this would have been a different film had Cameron directed, or Rodriguez been allowed to be a little edgier – you can almost sense him reluctantly holding back during some of the more violent skirmishes.
Ultimately, fans of the anime and manga incarnations will be pleased that the essence of Koshiro’s creation remains intact – this is the most successful translation of manga to movie to date.
In cinemas: February 14, 2019
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez