Neil is a professional video editor and lifelong movie & TV obsessive.
Alita Battle Angel has been a passion project for director James Cameron after he acquired the rights to Yukito Kitshiros Manga back in 2000, it took him nineteen years to bring his vision to the screen and eventually he had to pass over directing duties to Robert Rodriguez when he prioritised the Avatar sequels.
The plot begins with Christoph Waltz's Dr Ido finding a badly damaged cyborg in the junkyard of Iron City. He fixes the cyborg naming her Alita after his deceased daughter, who he had originally built a cyborg body for. Alita remembers nothing of her past life until she is put into a dangerous situation and gets a flash of memory where she is fighting in a large battle.
We learn about 'The Fall' a vaguely mentioned intergalactic war that resulted in most of earth and its floating cities being destroyed, only the city of Zalem survived where people live in luxury while everyone else fights for scraps in Iron City.
The only way to get to Zalem is by winning a tournament called Motorball (or Rollerball as it was originally called before the idea was recycled here), It is established early on that Alita wants to go to Zalem as she believes it is where she will find answers to who and what she was.
The films biggest strengths and weakness is that it feels like we are watching a greatest hits compilation from both director and producer. From Cameron there are Avatar style massive mechs and spectacular visuals, from Rodriguez there is brilliantly directed actions scenes and crunching brutality which pushes the limits of the PG13 rating. Indeed there are many robotic limbs severed and a high bodycount with key characters murdered throughout, and with Rodriguez directing we get a fantastic bar brawl.
One of my favourite scenes is when Alita tries to recruit the other bounty hunters to join with her in a typical big motivational speech and they all start laughing at her so of course she has to fight them all. It is like a cyberpunk version of Dusk Till Dawn but it lacks that films gonzo bloodlust and madcap editing.
Although based on a Manga from 1990, the whole plot feels rehashed from better sci fi movies. The relationship between Dr Ido & Alita is straight from Kubrick/Speilbergs A.I, the Motorball tournament is ripped from Rollerball and the plot strand of a rich utopian floating city while the poor live on a battered earth has been explored many times on screen. The most recent being Neill Blomkamps Elysium and the trope of cyborg assassin with amnesia is directly from Ghost in the Shell.
Even the central romance between Alita and Hugo feels forced and recycled from other better movies, and I'm sure a young Kitshiro was influenced by Cameron's earlier work while growing up in Japan.
Now lets take a look at the casting.
Rosa Salazar as Alita
Salazar's profile will definitely by raised by Alita, she has had guest spots on TV shows such as American Horror Story & Parenthood in the last few years Recently she has had small roles in the Maze Runner films and Netflix's recent hit Birdbox.
When the first trailer dropped for Alita there was quite the negative reaction to Alita's large CGI Manga eyes, though everything else is Salazar's performance. Within ten minutes I had forgotten about the 'Manga eyes' and just enjoyed her performance and I think her performance is good enough to be talked about in the same breath as Andy Serkis & WETA.
Salazar really makes you believe she is an ultimate cyborg warrior who can take down anyone put in her way, but it is where she shows real wonder as she learns about how life in Iron City works.
Christoph Waltz as Dr Ido
Waltz rarely turns in a bad performance and usually steals the scene anyway. He came to main stream prominence with his Tarantino collaborations in Inglorious Bastards & Django Unchained and since he has worked with Roman Polanski, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, even finding time to be a Bond villain in Spectre.
Dr Ido is a great character and Waltz plays the bereaved but good natured cyber doctor, as he assistant tells him 'clients can't keep paying him in fruit! We learn that his wife Chiren left him after their daughter died while he was working on a cybernetic body that would have allowed her to walk.
Ido immediately names the cyborg girl Alita (his daughters name) and becomes her defacto father figure. Alita soon becomes curious about Ido's nighttime activities when gruesome murders start happening in Iron City, but the twist comes when the audience and Alita both believe Ido might be capable of these crimes. It is then revealed that Ido is a Hunter Killer (future speak for bounty hunter) and Alita immediately shows skill fighting and wants to become a Hunter Killer herself.
We also find out Ido was originally from Zalem but that plot thread goes nowhere, at least in this movie.
Jennifer Connelly as Chiren
Connelly has one of the weakest written roles in Alita, as Chiren she is Dr Ido's ex wife and also a cybernetic genius, her main motivation is to get sent to Zalem which the villainous Vector promises her as long as she keeps making killer mechs for Motorball. Where Ido works to help cyborgs and create life, Chiren wants to create bigger and better cybernetic monsters for Vector.
She keeps tabs on Alita throughout the film yet when she has the chance to capture her she allows Alita to escape. This sudden change of heart is near really explored or developed as in the next scene Chiren tells Vector she is done and wants to leave. The next time we see Chiren she has literally been 'fridged' as we see Vector taunt Alita with a cooler full of Chiren's organs. After how poorly developed her character was I doubt Connelly would have been interested in a sequel anyway.
Ed Skein as Zapan
Rising star Skein has one of the more notable roles as the villainous Zapan, one of the top hunter killers (Cameron literally stealing from his own films, were their not hunter killers in the Terminator films?)
Skein has built an impressive body of work over recent years despite getting recast after one season in Game of Thrones. He has starred in action films like The Transporter Refuelled, as Ajax in Deadpool and more dramatic roles recently in films such as the Oscar nominated 'If Beale Street Could Talk' & 'The Model'.
Mahershala Ali as Vector
Ali is currently starring in the third season of HBO's True Detective and is nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his work in Peter Farrelly's Green Book, he won the same award in 2017 for his acclaimed performance in Moonlight.
Before his oscar nominations Ali was putting in great work on acclaimed TV shows such as House of Cards (back when we could enjoy Kevin Spacey performances) and Luke Cage, however I remember him from the sci fi show The 4400. If you look at Ali's career trajectory he started with basic TV work and solidly worked his way up through the genres to better roles which has now led him to Oscar success.
Unfortunately he is largely wasted here as one of many underdeveloped villains in the film. Vector runs the Motorball tournaments and as such is one of the most powerful people in Iron City, he manipulates many people with promises of passage to Zalem a promise he never intends to keep.
Vector is a proxy for the real antagonist of the film Nova, who can possess Vector at will from Zalem to make him do his bidding. It is a shame that more time was not spent giving the character sufficient depth as we only a few brief mentions of Vector struggling with the situation he is in. That said Ali does as well with the little he is given and the film is Alita's story not Vector's.
Keenan Johnson as Hugo
My most hated character in the film is Hugo, a street kid who Dr Ido immediately warns Alita to stay away from. Of course being a rebellious teenager cyborg assassin means she immediately goes to him and disobeys everything Ido tells her.
We can see the twist that Hugo works for Vector tracking down and cutting up cyborgs from the start, therefore we know later on Alita will find out and that will split them apart. Thankfully Alita is pretty forgiving and it doesn't take long for them to mend fences just in time for Hugo to be hunted by Zapan and framed for murder.
Alita arrives to save him but he is mortally wounded but luckily enough Chiren is spying on them and saves Hugo's life. Ido helps out and as soon as Hugo wakes up he is going to have a shiny new cyborg body. I thought finally we have a nice duality in the roles, now Alita can help Hugo become more like her as a cyborg yet within minutes the film ruins this promising development.
Instead of waking up, learning how to be a cyborg and waiting for Alita to return he has the boneheaded idea to run up a transport tube to Zalem. Alita also realising this is stupid chases him down and begs him to come back to Iron City with her, but no Hugo is an idiot and obviously Nova agrees with me as he sends a rolling ball of death spikes down the tube slicing Hugo to pieces minutes after he had just been saved from death.
Even with Hugo's severed toros plummeting to the ground, I still think they can salvage (pun intended) the situation. Alita was found in the junkyard by Ido at the start of the film, what's to stop the same thing happening to Hugo in a potential sequel?
Edward Norton as Nova
Setting up the sequel we have Edward Norton's brief cameo at the end of the film as Nova, all we learn of Nova throughout is that he was controlling Vector and all the events taking place in Iron City from Zalem
One of my issues with the end of the film is that the death of Hugo is Alita's primary reason for wanting to get to Zalem and confront Nova. The killing a loved one trope is so overdone in films of this ilk and the feeble Hugo should not be her primary motivation. It should be Alita wanting to find out why Nova wants her dead, who was she before, where is she from and why was she viewed as the enemy of Earth?
Any of the above would be better plot lines to follow for the enviable sequel, and you had better believe there is going to be a sequel. After Hugo plummets to his demise we see Alita looking up at Zalem in anguish and then inexplicably we cut back to Alita back playing Motorball months later. Now she is on the verge of becoming champion and is beloved by the crowds, excellent I thought now we are going to see her head to Zalem and get some answers...then the credits started!
What annoyed me most was it left so many plot threads hanging and a sequel despite Cameron's shepherding of the project may not be too likely as the film's initial tracking in America is on course for a $50 million opening weekend from a $200 million plus budget. The film was around 2 hours 20 minutes and we could have easily spent another 30 or 40 minutes going to Zalem and getting some answers for the audience and Alita before planting enough seeds for a sequel. No first film in a potential franchise should be all set up for a sequel that might not happen.
Overall Alita Battle Angel is largely what I expected, an entertaining film that outright steals many of its plot strands from other better sci fi films, with Cameron even cannibalising his own back catalogue. Rodriguez's directs with visual flair and edits some great set pieces but the dialogue is poor and many of the characters are underwritten to be little more than cliches of the genre.
I would like to see the potential sequel one day, however the films muted box office response means we might be waiting another nineteen years.