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Film Review: “Alita: Battle Angel,” Silliness and All, Offers Solid Entertainment

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 14th, 2019

Film poster: “Alita: Battle Angel”

Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez, 2019) out of 4 stars.

Based on a Japanese manga series by Yukito Kishiro, the crazy new film from writer/director Robert Rodriguez (Machete Kills) and writers James Cameron (Avatar) and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island), Alita: Battle Angel serves up a digitally altered Rosa Salazar (Night Owls) in a post-apocalyptic world filled with trash, cyborgs and mayhem. With her enhanced and enlarged eyes – an unsettling touch imported over from the source material – Salazar’s Alita looks barely human, appropriate enough since she is only half so. With only her upper torso and head comprised of organic material, Alita is a perfect fighting machine, with a warrior’s brain and a robot’s body. If anyone can save the depressed denizens of future earth, it might just be her.

Discovered in a refuse pile below the floating city of Zalem by Dr. Ido of Iron City, Alita is not much to look at, at first, just a useless head attached to nothing. But something in her touches Ido and he solders her to the artificial body he had earlier created for his now-dead daughter (perhaps it’s those enormous eyes of hers, since Ido is played by Christoph Waltz, who once incarnated Walter Keane in Big Eyes). Innocent and childlike at first, Alita quickly begins to access lost memories from a distant past that indicates that: a) she’s a lot older than she looks; and b) also more deadly. Soon, we’re in the middle of rousing action/adventure that has no right to be as enjoyable as it is, both supremely stupid and amazingly good fun. Did I mention trash? Nothing wrong with it …

Rosa Salazar (sort of) in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL ©Twentieth Century Fox

The year is 2563, and we are 300 years after “the fall,” in which forces from colonies on Mars attacked the planet, disabling or destroying all the elite floating cities but one. It seems the power and the wealth of the world are now concentrated in the remaining bastion of the upper classes, Zalem, while the denizens of the ground suffer in squalor. Though Ido has no intention of using Alita to upset the system, once her memories kick in, revealing the truth about her origins, fate may take the decision out of his hands. For such a potentially silly movie, the plot and trajectory of the protagonist are laid out fairly clearly, with objectives and motivations that make sense, sci-fi technobabble notwithstanding.

Salazar, CGI and all, makes a very appealing lead. Waltz is his usual competent self. Joining them are Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Jennifer Connelly (American Pastoral) and Keean Johnson (Heritage Falls), among others, the entire ensemble game and willing to participate in the nonsense at hand, their enthusiasm elevating the affair to solid entertainment. I got a kick out of the whole thing, even if the shock of the non-ending, a quasi-cliffhanger that virtually forces a sequel, ultimately disappointed. Still, I’ll be back for round two, without a doubt.

Keean Johnson and Rosa Salazar in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL ©Twentieth Century Fox
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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