Alita: Battle Angel review – lovestruck tweenies do battle in robot dystopia

Rosa Salazar stars as a cyborg killing machine brought back to life in Robert Rodriguez’s oddly tame postapocalyptic future

Robert Rodriguez has lately been a purveyor of grindhouse-homage laughs with his Machete franchise, and jaded 2D thrills in the Sin City movies. Now he’s in charge of something more conventional and colossal, co-written and co-produced by James Cameron. It’s a coming-of-age melodrama about young love in the postapocalyptic future, centring on a young woman called Alita with “the face of an angel and a body built for battle”, and involving plenty of human-slash-cyborg martial arts.

The entertainment has been scavenged together from the body parts of other movies such as Blade Runner, RoboCop, Rollerball and of course Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, although that last one is now so deeply in the bloodstream of the futurist genre that identifying it as an influence is beside the point.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on the Japanese manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro and like the remake of Ghost in the Shell it has been the subject of whitewashing complaints. Well, the original is set in Kansas, a location that here shifts to an indeterminate polyglot megacity of the 26th century. Its lead female character has the distinctive stylised big-eye look, a manga convention that is, perhaps, neither Asian nor western, as much Snapchat as anything else. The martial art of which she is a master is incidentally called panzer kunst, although no one in this film explains why it’s in German, or translates it: it means armoured art.

Christoph Waltz plays Dr Dyson Ido, a tech-physician who specialises in prosthetic work for the badly injured and repairs for the cyborgs and andro-cyborgs who lumber about in this crowded, chaotic lower-caste city, which sits below a larger place hovering in the sky: a place of legendary privilege that some aspire to see and sample for themselves, if they can somehow get rich enough – perhaps by becoming a star in the fiercely dangerous sport of motorball, whose players often need Dr Ido’s ministrations.

Bad-guy charisma … Mahershala Ali (centre) in Alita: Battle Angel.
Bad-guy charisma … Mahershala Ali (centre) in Alita: Battle Angel. Photograph: Rico Torres/20th Century Fox

While rummaging for reusable discarded tech in a dump, Ido comes across the head and spinal column of a discarded female android. He takes it home and makes it his passion project to reconstruct the entity, fitting it together with the body chassis that he had built for his disabled daughter, a wheelchair user killed in a burglary. When she is complete, this eerily beautiful, sweet-natured teenage girl is given the name his daughter had, Alita, and for a while she acts as Miranda to his Prospero. But when she finds herself in stressful situations, Alita (Rosa Salazar) weirdly snaps into combat-ready mode and flashbacks from her memory cortex reveal that she was once a terrifyingly effective warrior. That is her vocation and her destiny, and will bring her into fateful contact with Ido’s careworn ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly); Vector (Mahershala Ali), who is involved with motorball at the highest level; Zapan (Ed Skrein), a creepy bounty hunter; and most importantly with Hugo (Keean Johnson), a troubled young mechanic who falls in love with her.

The extravagant cartoon violence involves damage to metal and circuitry rather than flesh and blood, which explains the 12A rating and the air of teen innocence that surrounds an essentially conservative film – despite some rather macabre moments involving the cradling of severed heads and one pretty racy scene when Connelly’s character reveals herself to be wearing stockings and suspenders. Ali’s natural charisma is underused as the scheming and all-powerful Vector, although he brings some reliable bad-guy aplomb. Waltz himself might have been considered for the evil role, although he does perfectly well as the benign father figure. Idara Victor has the underwritten part of Dr Ido’s nurse, Gerhad.

Alita: Battle Angel is a film with Imax spectacle and big effects. But for all its scale, it might end up being put on for 13-year-olds as a sleepover entertainment. It doesn’t have the grownup, challenging, complicated ideas of Ghost in the Shell. A vanilla dystopian romance.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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