Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Idara Victor
Written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis
Based on the comic book “Gunnm” by Yukito Kishiro
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau
Cinematography by Bill Pope
Edited by Stephen E. Rivkin
Visual effects supervised by Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, Nick Epstein, Raymond Chen and Nigel Denton-Howes
Music by Tom Hokenborg

“Alita: Battle Angel,” a futuristic, dystopian, apocalyptic science-fiction action-adventure popcorn movie from James Cameron, Jon Landau, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez, is a fun, rousing, entertaining, often mindless—but ultimately in a good way mindless—and visually-stunning big-screen extravaganza that is worth seeing and, somehow, ultimately does succeed—but note that the movie succeeds despite itself, and, at times, nearly—but not quite—teeters and falls apart under the weight of its nitpicky, nearly-amateurish missteps. “Alita” can indeed be hampered at times by clunky, almost-laughable dialogue; too many sci-fi, action-adventure, fantasy and apocalyptic-movie clichés to count (Norman Jewison and James Caan and the late William Harrison, watching from beyond, will likely be a bit upset with certain parts of this film); some expansive black holes in the story, screenplay, plot and subplots big enough to fly several Enterprises through at warp speed; and some possible moments—in between some genuine moments of comedic relief–of everyone taking everything just a little too seriously—at times.

However, somehow, someway, despite these critical-eye misgivings, filmic missteps and near-mistakes, as noted, “Alita: Battle Angel” manages through sheer determination, good will, optimism, overall entertainment value, visual effects and production design and art direction expertise—and overall quality filmmaking, insightful film savviness and filmic sci-fi, action-adventure guts and chutzpah—to overcome its flailings and failings and come through it all as an enjoyable popcorn escapist movie actually worth seeing up on the big screen. The movie’s final success is a testament to the sheer filmmaking perception, insight, talent, creativity and brilliant technological creativity and ingenuity of its filmmakers—who show that when a bevy of experienced filmmakers work together, and work hard, and show their sheer dedication to the overall end product and project, they can sometimes somehow overcomes the inherent, obvious misgivings present in their work. Co-writers Cameron and Kalogridis, co-producers Cameron and Landau and director Rodriguez all know in the back and forefront of their minds how much they’re stealing from so many prior projects, how many clichés are piled up in the script, how many lines may fall flat in the script, and how far they have to go to get viewers to suspend their disbelief—but they also know how to overcome all that, overcome those hurdles, provide enough sheer fun and action and visual spectable and likeable characters to engage viewers, and how to produce a fun movie.

After all, even the greatest and most successful of science-fiction, action-adventure, futuristic, escapist and apocalyptic films throughout film history borrowed from everyone else. George Lucas and Gene Roddenbery and Robert Wise and Robert Zemeckis and Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg and J. J. Abrams and Roger Corman and Ridley Scott and a thousand other science fiction directors, producers and writers have all acknowledged, often, their visual, story, plot, script, character, scene, visual and general-outline filmic influences; and their prior filmmaker and film influences—as have filmmakers in every other genre in film. Cameron, Landau and Rodriguez have even often acknowledged their own filmic influences—and borrowed heavily from them, too!

So if many aspects in many scenes of “Alita: Battle Angel” seem a little too familiar, well, so be it. The film is one of those instances where filmgoers will breezily, lightly—and enjoyably—end up getting caught up in the overall goofiness, craziness and wackiness of the cyborg- and robot- and cyberpunk- and steampunk- and—gasp—even teen-romance storylines and action and visual aspects of “Alita” and submit, robot-like, to the entertainment and spectacle and just end up having fun.

However, with all of that said—and this is actually a compliment—“Alita” is good and enjoyable enough that the movie can—and should—be enjoyed without the wholly unnecessary, over-priced, rip-off, ridiculous movie theater bells and whistles such as Imax, 3-D, shaking seats and eardrum-piercing enhanced Dolby sound. That’s right—without these rip-off fee add-ons. Just go and see “Alita” in good, old-fashioned 2D, or under regular viewing circumstances. What happens with “Alita” is that the movie grabs a firm hold on motion capture, green screen, CGI, animatronics and numerous other computer, digital, visual and special effects and runs with it all in grand fashion. Thus, the movie is visually breathtaking enough that viewers don’t need Imax, 3-D and over-loud enhanced sound in the theater. The film is good, visually-impressive, compelling, dynamic and inspirational enough that no one needs to see the movie with all of these annoying, rip-off gimmicks.

Kudos, then, to Cameron, Landau, Rodriguez and Kalogridis for making this spirited film–with an equally-spirited, spunky and individualistic female hero as the lead character–to quell the winter doldrums.

Rosa Salazar voices that main female character, Alita, a poor, native-Martian cyborg rescued from a literal trash heap of history by the kindly, fatherly cyborg engineer, mechanic and repairman Dyson Ido in the year 2563—and it’s not a good year for, well, most things. Earth is pretty much that literal trash heap, listing and stumbling along amid literal mounds of trash and litter and debris left over from a previous catastrophic, apocalyptic war event known as The Fall, which pretty much left the planet in a state that resembles at times scenes from “Logan’s Run,” “Rollerball,” “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Zombieland,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Terminator,” “The Omega Man,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” “Ready Player One,” “Frankenstein,” “Escape from New York,” “Mad Max,” “The Road Warrior,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” “Re-Animator,” “Bladerunner” and a thousand other dystopian/apocalyptic movies. People scavenge for food and money and materials and supplies; many people are part robot or cyborg or steam-punk imitators; people known as hunter-warriors get certified and scarily, dangerously and crazed-vigilante-wise hunt down criminals in the streets, absent a coherent police department or public safety system; many people are starving, poor, desperate, vulnerable, half-crazy and generally depressed to the point of criminality; people find solace in stupid, ridiculous, reckless and purely savage, violent and barbarian games in loud arenas; society is driven to horrendous depths due to harsh divisions and class differences; people are controlled and run by a rich, bubble-world, elitist human monster who aims to survive by any means, to keep people down, and also aims to work to keep people in check at the expense of actually improving society; and people are constantly scheming to resist and overthrow that evil overlord controlling society. Hmmm. Do parts of this scenario start to sound familiar? Well, the movie does indeed have some worthwhile themes, lessons, morals and messages amid the sci-fi, visuals, spectacle and action-adventure, and it’s all inherent in this overall civic and societal structure, with not-so-subtle connections and comparisons to modern-day life in 2019. And those themes and lessons, if one is paying attention closely enough, do give the movie a bit of an intellectual lift and do provide some actual thought and grist for discussion amid the fast-moving mayhem.

Ido recognizes something moving in the humanistic brain and cyborg machinations of the trashed cyborg that he finds, and he names her Alita, after his late daughter—and Ido promptly takes the position of father, parent, mentor, guide and teacher to Alita, helping her find her way, her path and herself in the crazy society that is what’s known as Iron City. Christoph Waltz very subtly, very quietly—almost too quietly—portrays Ido as a serene, reflective, saddened old soul whose boring, cyborg-repair-oriented life is given a needed boost, and added meaning, by the growing, evolving and increasingly individualistic, brave and courageous Alita, and the relationship, interactions and, yes, chemistry between Waltz’s very human Ido and the very cyborg motion-capture, CGI-generated character of Alita is, well, touching and emotional. Some cynics may balk at this, and even laugh at it, but if you have a heart—a human heart—one should be able to grasp the pain of a father who lost his daughter amid warfare in a pained, crumbled world and who manages to find some salvation and hope in helping Alita regain and restore her life. The father-daughter relationship between Ido and Alita actually grounds the movie, carries the movie, and provides the film’s emotional center and foundation—and that’s a good thing, and one of the brightest part of the proceedings.

However, there’s much more going on, of course, than Ido’s resurrection of Alita. As Alita progresses and regains her strength, stamina, independence and, most importantly, her memory, Ido and Alita realize there’s much more to Alita that the sum of her metal, steel and anatomical parts. Alita turns out to be some sort of super-cyborg, super-strong, super-Martian super-hero who fits a special costume that gives her certain extraordinary levels of power, strength, resistance—and even leadership and all-out power. Yes, like so many futuristic heroes, she’s a destined one—a predetermined, mysterious, even mystical leader who’s pre-destined to lead the resistance to the over-riding societal power mongers and power structures. Again, just like so many other heroes in so many other dystopian stories. But there’s a catch to Alita, and it’s quite simple, but also quite effective—and it’s another foundation that saves the movie: Alita is immensely, irristibly lovable. Not just likeable, but lovable. And it’s not just because the filmmakers, writers and visual effects crews made her adorably cute—which she is—but it’s because her spirit, optimism, character, energy, presence and, again, overall lovability is irresistible. Any cynic, doubter or hater who may dislike “Alita: Battle Angel”—and there are already those who do indeed doubt, hate and dislike this movie—would be hard-pressed to ultimately admit that they doubt, hate or dislike the essence of the character Alita in the film. If they do, well, they have a problem. That’s because Alita is presented so honestly, adorably and positively, it’s her spirit that not just lifts the movie, but lifts the inherent storyline, her surrounding characters—even the characters in the movie who initially fear and hate her—and, ultimately, society, and that’s no spoiler on any level. If you can’t foresee that Alita rises above everything, becomes a leader and a hero and ascends to lead the resistance, well, you’re not paying attention or you just haven’t seen or read enough science-fiction, fantasy and action-adventure films, television shows and books!

It’s this lovable character, her rise through the various obstacles that confront her in Iron City, and her forceful, impressive spirit and resilience that also drive the movie. Along Alita’s way to prominence, she forms a teen-style romance with a hunky Iron City stud named Hugo—respectfully and honorably played by Keean Johnson despite a script that doesn’t quite give Hugo the best lines or the best characterization; she fights a seemingly endless array of bizarro—and hilariously and scarily assembled army of cyborgs, robots, machines and human-cyborg creatures and human-robot creatures on a non-stop mission to kill Alita and Hugo; she battles Vector, a mysterious, corrupt businessman who aims to kill Alita because of her rising power; she battles Zapan, a wholly-frightening, massive mess of steel and knives and violence that Vector uses to constantly hunt down and kill Alita; she battles Grewishka, another wholly-frightening, massive mass of steel and knives and violence which is also tasked with killing Alita; and Alita fights to bring down Nova, a mysterious, mystical human-like force that controls a protected city in the sky, controls some people’s minds in Iron City, and essentially runs, controls and dictates Iron City, to its overall detriment. Through of all this, there’s a succession of impressive fight and action scenes, made more inventive and unique by Cameron’s and Rodriguez’s adherence to state-of-the-art, modern-day technology, with cyborg, robot and human-cyborg creatures lunging and jumping and flying towards each other with genuinely scary knives, blades, whirring saws, steel and metal tentacles, and all other manners of futuristic weapons.

One plot point that has been somehow inserted somewhat clumsily into the mix is the aforementioned arena game, a complete rip-off of William Harrions rollerball, which was previously enshrined in the excellent 1975 science fiction film “Rollerball,” written by Harrison, directed by Jewison and starring James Caan. In “Alita,” alas, the game is called—not too originally—motorball, and, despite the movie’s best intentions, there really doesn’t seem to be, in the end, much coherent reason why on Earth, or why on Iron City, the scenes of motorball are even in the movie. The motorball scenes just seem to pop in clumsily, with a weak connection to the overall plot, story and storyline, for nothing but base, simple-level action-sequence and violence kicks. Actually, the motorball scenes distract from the larger, better story, plot and subplot—and the motorball scenes could have been cut entirely, and “Alita” would have been a better movie. Adding to the fact that there’s no real reason for these motorball scenes, the game and the scenes are such a horrendous rip-off of “Rollberball,” it’s all just a bit embarrassing. This is why Jewison, Caan and Harrison should be upset—“Alita” doesn’t add or enhance anything to what “Rollerball” presented in 1975, and there’s not even a hint of humor, sarcasm, parody or irony in the game’s presentation, which is also hurtful. The motorball scenes just come across as a blatant rip-off of “Rollerball.”

Nevertheless, much like Spielberg’s somewhat-similar “Ready Player One” in 2018 overcame similar problems to be an overall entertaining and fun movie, “Alita: Battle Angel,” again, somehow managers to overcome its faults, and the movie just simply ends up being a fun escapist popcorn science-fiction action-adventure film to see in the theaters, without annoying bells and whistles, amid the cold, dreary doldrums of a February winter. As a respite from the winter’s cold and grayness, “Alita: Battle Angel” and Alita, the character herself, are able to provide some sunshine, and some fun, into the often-downer world of winter. As Anton Chekhov said, “People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.” Chekhov also said, “Even in Siberia there is happiness.” If “Alita: Battle Angel” can provide a little happiness amid the dreariness of winter, then so be it, and, paraphrasing Phil Connors, who referenced Chekhov in Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” filmgoers couldn’t imagine a better fate this winter than letting “Alita: Battle Angel” warm their hearts for a couple of hours in the dark and cozy comforts of a welcoming movie theater.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.