Let’s not lie to ourselves. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of reactions to Alita: Battle Angel, the list of names associated with the movie is dumbfounding. The film is star-studded, in a way that one doesn’t expect from a manga adaptation genre film. From James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) behind the camera to Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Green Book) to Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), you can’t swing a cybernetically enhanced future cat without hitting an Academy Award winner.
At the center of the film though, is two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) as Dr. Dyson Ido. And if the film were only able to pull in one Academy Award winner, Waltz is the one Alita needs. The script, by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, is similar to many sci-fi blockbusters in that it relies on frequent moments of plot exposition to ensure the audience is still following the story.
The script smartly leaves those exposition moments in Waltz’s hands, relying on his acting chops to keep the audience engaged. Which is why it is so startling when, in the second act, Waltz shrugs his shoulders and says “I don’t know how it works.” He hasn’t given up. Waltz, like the story itself, knows exactly what this movie is.
Alita herself (Rosa Salazar) is a robot who Waltz’s Dr. Ido salvaged from a trash heap in the center of Iron City. The upper portion of her body – including her brain, heart, and spinal column – are loaded into a prefab body of Ido’s design. We later find out that Alita is from Zalem, the floating city in the sky above Iron City. Did I forget to mention that? There’s a flying city.
But wait, because only a few beats later we discover that Alita isn’t from Zalem. She’s actually from Mars! And she’s loaded into a better Martian body and made of nanotech! But this too comes with risks because of the Moon war that Earth waged against Mars robots. But that was back before The Fall, over 300 years ago. Now, in the year 2563, things like that are ancient history. As long as you live by the rules, Nova lays out for you. Because Nova sees everything. He, like Alita, was around before The Fall. And… honestly? I don’t know how any of it works.
But does it matter? I could sit here and wrack my brain trying to remember every beat of Alita: Battle Angel‘s plot. But it doesn’t matter. Because the plot isn’t why anyone should see this movie, they should see it because it’s an excellent, star-studded, sci-fi fever dream that smashes robots together like action figures. You can imagine James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez in the studio, models in hand, saying “And then he’s gonna go: ‘bzzzzzzz’ WOAH!” as they smash one toy into another.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place in Iron City in 2563. When Dr. Ido finds Alita in the citywide garbage pile, he resurrects her and gives her a second chance at life. He goes the full Geptepto looking after her while she wonders around Iron City “Oh gosh”-ing at every nook and cranny she can point her CGI eyeballs at.
Because of something in Alita’s past, there are a group of bad guys who want to destroy her. Their master plan includes convincing her to try out to be a star athlete in Iron City’s favorite sport: Motorball. Meanwhile, Alita finds out that Ido has been moonlighting as a bounty hunter who wields a giant rocket powered hammer, and she decides to try her hand at capturing fugitives. All the while, various denizens of the Iron City are filling in pieces of Alita’s mysterious past.
And did I mention that Edward Norton shows up at the end as the bad guy?
Ultimately, Alita is The Phantom Menace. The fight scenes are incredible. The pod racing, which in this movie is called Motorball (and is essentially roller derby with a basketball hoop at one end), is fantastic. And those segments are stitched together by a lot of sci-fi nonsense that sounds like somebody spent a lot of time thinking about it. Audiences that go in looking for a high brow consideration of artificial intelligence will be disappointed. Those that go in looking for cool fights will be well pleased.
In the past few years, science fiction has been co-opted by prestige film audiences, which has been good, because it has led to moves like Annihilation, Arrival, and The Martian. But this revolution does have downsides. Alita: Battle Angel is great. It is a fun movie that delivers on everything it sets out to do. But it feels like a sci-fi blockbuster from five years ago.
Alita feels like the kind of movie that can lead the charge back towards fun and exciting sci-fi movies with a focus on visual marvel. The return of these types of film would be a boon to genre fans who have had to choose between high-brow science fiction and Marvel fare lately. The decision on Alita’s future, as well as the future of blockbuster sci-fi, will depend on the box office success of Battle Angel. Then executives will have to project long term gains and advertisers will have to analyze campaign success and…
Honestly, I don’t know how any of it works. And it’s not nearly as fun as talking about robots trying to kill each other. So instead of worry about that, just watch Alita.
Did I mention there’s a flying city? It’s great. All of it. Go see it. Take your kids. It’s a blast.