Alita: Battle Angel may not be the best movie of the year. Heck, it may not even be director Robert Rodriguez's best adaptation of a comic book. But it will almost certainly be the best big-budget comic book movie released in the first half of 2019 about a super-powered young woman who feels compelled to protect the innocent and is having trouble remembering her past.
Rodriguez, along with producer and co-writer James Cameron, has crafted a film that brings to life a world of promise and ruin, where humanity has adapted itself to do the extraordinary while living on the edge of destruction. Iron City, where the film's action takes place, is certainly a slum—favela-like dwellings rise above filthy streets patrolled by mechanized police of the sort parodied in the Robocop films—but it's one that doesn't seem all that unpleasant. There is food, drink, and, motorball, a viciously violent sport that calls to mind the James Caan classic, Rollerball.
The world Rodriguez and Cameron have created here feels plausibly real, lived-in and livable. The city's danger and decrepitude reveal themselves in more than just the crumbling buildings and trash-strewn streets: The cyborg creations wandering around Iron City suggest to us the ugliness that accompanies the desire to do harm. A woman's pretty face is attached to a series of cold steel blades and metal bones, her movements skittery like a spider. A bald, musclebound freak with an undersized head and oversized body whose flesh cannot cover the pistons enhancing his strength tromps through back alleys, looking for prey.
But Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a beacon of beauty in this sea of grotesques. Pulled out of a dump by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), Alita is literally a fallen angel: the trash heap in which he finds her cyborg core, miraculously intact and containing technology long-thought lost, is the accumulated junk discarded by the sky city of Zalem floating high above Iron City. Ido, a master physician with a heart of gold and a dark secret, attaches Alita's still-functioning brain and heart to a cyborg body and teaches her about the dangers of her fallen world.
Of course, Alita can take care of herself, and the best thing about Battle Angel is its high-octane action sequences during which the petite cyborg dismantles her more voluminous aggressors. Rodriguez has filmed these scenes—sneak attacks in dark alleys; brawls in bars; city-spanning motorball death derbies—with 3D in mind, which means he has framed them with care and keeps the camera movements to a minimum. As a result, the action is legible and coherent in a way that such action fare often isn't. This isn't enough to make me recommend seeing it in 3D—I did, and while the effect wasn't as vexing as it often is, the encumbrance of an extra set of glasses on top of my standard glasses was still annoying—but I imagine the care improves the 2D action as well.
The cyborg battles are intercut with a love story. Alita succumbs to the charms of street rat Hugo (Keean Johnson), who hopes to ascend to Zalem with the aid of Iron City's gangster boss, Vector (Mahershala Ali). This subplot provides the emotional core of the film, but the combination of Johnson's lack of charisma combined with Alita's slightly alien appearance—CGI-enhanced eyes and skin and arms and hands—render it difficult to care too much about their happiness. The relationship between the two serves mostly to move the story forward rather than provide poignancy.
From Sin City to Spy Kids to Grindhouse, Rodriguez has always had a strong visual eye that adapts easily to different genres. He's not prisoner to any specific aesthetic or visual tic, which in turn allows the story to be told in the manner most fit for it. One might not expect the author of the starkly framed black and white comic-panel-style shots of Sin City to manage something as sublime as the introduction to our heroine: Ido digging Alita out of a trash heap, framed on both sides by mountains of garbage as light bathes them—adoptive father and soon-to-be-daughter—in a beatific glow.
Box office tracking suggests Alita is not bound for box office glory. It's a pity. There's an imaginative joy at work in the picture, and a visual vitality that puts it a rung above your average CGI-laden explosion-fest. Should it fail to find its footing in theaters, Alita‘s likely to find its own cult of followers, a la the Wachowskis' Speed Racer adaptation. But you should seek out Alita in theaters: It's spectacle with an anti-matter-powered heart, and as such deserves to be seen on a massive screen with an impressive sound system.