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Alita: Battle Angel rises above its ugly ads, flies to a cloud city of awesome

Alita: Battle Angel rises above its ugly ads, flies to a cloud city of awesome

Enlarge / There’s just no getting around the eyes, huh, 20th Century Fox? So be it.20th Century Fox reader comments 10 with 10 posters participating Share this story Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Reddit Alita: Battle Angel lands in theaters on Thursday, February 14, with—if my own pessimistic assumptions are any indication—some…


There's just no getting around the eyes, huh, 20th Century Fox? So be it.
Enlarge/There’s just no getting around the eyes, huh, 20th Century Fox? So be it.

Alita: Battle Angellands in theaters on Thursday, February 14, with—if my own pessimistic assumptions are any indication—some significant baggage attached.

I know I’m not the only person to sigh after seeing the oversized,Avatar-esque eyes inAlita‘strailers. Worse, those eyes are attached to a James Cameron script that adapts an early ’90s Japanese manga into a multimillion-dollar film that casts zero Asian actors as leads. Nothing about that bullet-point trio, which reminded me of the2017 ScarJo stinkerGhost in the Shell, got me excited ahead ofAlita‘s press screening.

But the name “Robert Rodriguez” made me interested. Could one of my favorite directors of the past 20 years strike gold again, even while saddled by so much apparent baggage?

The answer is a powerful “yes,” as if delivered by a Panzer Kunst punch through the skull. It’s been a long time since I’ve come out of an action film desperate to rave about its characters, its combat, and its heart, but Rodriguez and co. have somehow taken the wide-eyed wonder ofSpy Kidsand married it with the exciting-new-universe feel of the first time I sawThe Matrix.

The elephant-sized eyes in the room

The worst part of thisAlitais when its cameras first linger over the titular hero. This apparent cyborg is found in the very first scene, and she’s just a head and torso (meaning, all primary cardiovascular and nervous system elements intact—that’s how this future world’s robots work). Next, she is restored by a famed cyborg-surgeon named Dyson Ido (two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz). The film wants viewers to place import in her post-surgery awakening, so a tight camera zoom hovers over her face as she opens her eyes. Her stupid, ugly eyes.

But it’s not just these weirdly shaped, overly moist globes that look disturbing. The materials used to render Alita’s human-like skin are the worst of all worlds: neither pockmarked and porous nor plasticky and rigid. There’s a weird perfection to its surface, which is compounded by the generally unnatural-looking way light bounces off of them. Occasionally rigid or unnatural animations pop up just often enough throughout the film to rip viewers out of the feeling that Alita might actually exist in this fantasy world.

Trailers do a disservice to how Alita melts into the film’s world.

Had the film’s VFX crew favored something that looked more like a real-life puppet or mannequin, Alita might feel that much more grounded, especially if her skin enjoyed more light-source bounces (including when closer to her real-life co-stars).

I point all this out because I needed roughly 15 minutes ofAlita: Battle Angelto believe that this annoyance was worth bearing. At no point during the film did I truly feel like Alita looked like a natural part of a scene, but at no point did her upward trajectory as a fascinating, vulnerable badass suffer from it.

And no matter how strange Alita looks, she never crosses as far into the uncanny valley as 1999’sFinal Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

In short: the trailers, with their hastily edited montages of Alita’s digital puppetry, do a great disservice to the end result. Once the film gains momentum, our titular hero melts into its fantastically invented and rendered world.

Overbearing cyborg analogy, incoming

After all, Alita’s CGI nature affords the production team some mind-blowing opportunities to recreate the most bonkers moments from the original manga. If you haven’t already read the manga, I encourage you to pause and wait until after seeingAlitato compare the source material to the film. This is, in part, because the script does a pretty phenomenal job of picking the original books’ plot apart and reforming it.

Alitathe film is as if the filmmakers found the original plot amidst a pile of busted cyborgs, then put it back together to make it more powerful and more human. (C’mon, lemme have this metaphor.)

Without spoiling too much, here’s one example ofAlita‘s nifty plot reshuffling. In the original manga, Ido says he discovered a very special upgrade for Alita in a mysterious place, then used it to rescue her after a dramatic event. Bingo-bango: Alita needed help and had a Macguffin of a savior.

But in the film, Alita is the one who finds this upgrade—and her ability to do so unfolds in a few cool ways. First, the upgrade-finding happens while she’s bonding with a new group of allies, which means these humans reflect out loud about her bizarre moment—this gives viewers more context about the history of theAlitafilm’s 26th-century universe. Second, the reveal lets the scriptwriters build momentum toward a reveal about one of Alita’s possible secrets. And it does those two things without ever feeling clumsy or plodding. We get a few choice sentences and a few show-don’t-tell versions of “a-ha!” We’re up to speed, and we get an excuse to understand and like these characters even more without even noticing it.

Some of the most intense battle sequences inAlitaalso lift particular poses and freeze-frames from the early-’90s manga, albeit with Rodriguez’s own clever sequential editing and plot development as tweaks. One particularly powerful fight, in which Alita is against all odds but somehow survives, is, in some ways, lifted almost identically from the source manga, as if the filmmakers used the original series art as a storyboard. But Rodriguez inserts this visually stunning moment into a different plot beat, and he masterfully stitches some phenomenal character development into his new concoction.

Stop me if you’ve seen this cloud city before

None of this would matter without actors carrying these characters forward, and singling out oneAlita: Battle Angelactor misses the point of how phenomenal this ensemble cast is.

Rosa Salazar has a ton of heavy lifting to do asAlita‘s titular, digitally twisted hero, and if there were an Oscar for “best acting under CGI duress,” she’d take the honors handily. Alita arrives in this film with a mix of amnesia, wide-eyed teenaged wonder, and pre-installed wisdom, and Salazar can turn on a dime to take on whatever personality firmware update is needed in a given scene.

She has quite the ally in Christoph Waltz as Ido, who appears in yet another “seems like a nice guy but has a dark secret” role. Thankfully, the source manga already laid out his character’s intriguing arc, and Rodriguez leans into its simplicity. This affords Waltz a lot of nonverbal opportunities to pause, smile, and mourn with his gestures and beats, and here, in a movie that seems like a James Cameron vehicle for bombast and stupidity, Waltz emerges as an actor at the top of his emotional craft.

The rest of the ensemble includes a delightfully slimy bounty-hunting rival (Ed Skrein,Deadpool), a plucky love interest (Keean Johnson, TV’sNashville) who winds up playing the Princess Peach to Alita’s Mario, and Ido’s former love interest (Jennifer Connelly), who conspires to wrest Alita away for her own selfish purposes. These three supporting characters only get a few moments to establish their own humanity and shades of gray, but somehow, Rodriguez gives them all the exact dialogue and breathing room needed to make them three-dimensional (as opposed to thinking that 3D glasses are sufficient for the purpose).

Alitakeeps its scope pretty tight, focusing squarely on these few lead characters and how they each aspire to make their way to a mysterious sky city. But the titular star is the most captivating, as her sensitivity, earnestness, and loyalty put her in a league well above the originalMatrix‘s Neo. Where that character was fun to root for in spite of his blank slate, Alita gets to balance feelings and friction in ways that make her feel human, but not weak.

The end result—of likable heroes and villains interlinked in serious green-screen bombast—is a film that feels so much more human than its commercials look.Alita: Battle Angelis about emerging from the confusion and fear of youth to believe in a greater cause—and then dealing with the aftermath when the goals we’ve put on a pedestal don’t turn out to be so grand. It establishes a tidy universe about two post-apocalyptic metropolitan zones—one golden goose in the sky, one full of trash on the ground—and sets into motion hopes and tragedies that appear to be tailor-made for a sequel.

The instant I got out of the theater, I began dreaming about that sequel—a thing I haven’t done about a film in a long time as a skeptical, movie-going adult. What’s more,Alita: Battle Angeldelivers this impact by leaning heavily into Star Wars’ original trilogy as an inspiration… but also somehow skipping straight toEmpire Strikes Backas a starting point.

Those are big-kid pants to put on, but I left myAlitapreview screening with my heart full of equal parts tragedy and hope, much in the same way thatEmpireleft me as a child. And it achieves this sensation by taking a surprisingly different path. Rodriguez got his film’s aspirational pants to fit by juggling a heap of moving parts and slotting them into perfect places. Bravo. With that, I must insist: don’t miss your chance to seeAlitain a theater.

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