Empty Sandboxes: The Highs and Lows of Alita: Battle Angel

Photo by Steven Roe on Unsplash

Robert Rodriguez loves to play. He is a filmmaker who is much less concerned with telling a complete story than he is with simply having as much fun as possible with a wild high concept premise. This is absolutely not a bad thing, as it has led to the insanity of From Dusk Till Dawn, the pulpy scares of The Faculty, the gore of Planet Terror, and the charming sense of childhood wonder in Spy Kids. These tendencies can sometimes lead to his downfall (every Spy Kids sequel), but for the most part, it is his trademark that he wears with pride. When we watch a Robert Rodriguez film, we know we will be entertained.

Now, James Cameron has given Robert Rodriguez his biggest sandbox to play in yet: Alita: Battle Angel, the adaptation of the original 90’s manga by Yukito Kishiro. It is easy to see why the story of an amnesiac cyborg girl in a post-apocalyptic future world would immediately catch the eye of James Cameron. Even Rodriguez’s taste for genre pulp can’t deny a premise like that.

It certainly feels more like a Rodriguez film than it does a James Cameron film. The DIY fingerprints of the once shoestring budget filmmaker are everywhere, from the grounded look and feel of Iron City to the colorful cast of characters balanced by A-Listers and newcomers alike. However, the screenplay is still Cameron’s, and his sense of mythic storytelling is still present, and through most of the runtime, finds itself at odds with Rodriguez, who would much rather show us Alita playing another game of Motorball instead of investigating the mystery behind Alita’s past.

Alita’s biggest problem is its screenplay, written by James Cameron, Laeta Kaologridis, and Rodriguez. The writers are determined to cram as much lore from the manga as they can into the bloated two hours of the film, while still leaving threads frustratingly open-ended in the hopes for a possible sequel. Characters appear and disappear throughout the film without so much as a goodbye. Multiple stories are dropped for another handful at the drop of a hat. Most of all, the most interesting parts about Alita are the storylines that are never followed through with at all. A world where almost everyone is half machine, trying desperately to reach the fabled city of their dreams, causing them to compromise their own morals in the process is much more interesting about a mystery plot involving a tired “Chosen One” genre trope.

The film has an episodic feel to it, which made me wish that the screenplay had simply let Rodriguez create an aimless, plotless film about a society of people getting by in a cyberpunk dystopia, playing in the sandbox that is Iron City.

And that world certainly is impressive. Although Battle Angel has its many flaws, it has just as many shining, wonderful moments of pure joy. Every single frame is a gorgeous explosion of color, detail, and life. Iron City constantly feels pulsating, alive, and aware, just like our cyborg heroine, Alita. Alita is played by Rosa Salazar, who is absolutely wonderful, even with what she is given, which is not much, but she finds a way to take Alita and make her feel more human than everyone else around her. That’s not to say the rest of the cast isn’t impressive, they just have even less to do than she does. Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali work wonders with the characters they’re given, even when they have very little to do. Jackie Earle Haley has a particularly fun, campy role in Grewishka, the cyborg hellbent on destroying Alita.

I was really hoping that Alita: Battle Angel would be 2019’s answer to Jupiter Ascending, a misunderstood delightful slice of sci-fi/fantasy camp that doesn’t take itself too seriously but still allows you a sense of wonder without dismissing it with an ironic smirk. Alita is almost that film, and for the first hour of its runtime, that is exactly the film that it is, but as the second hour commences, it gets weighed down by its own mythology and its own inability to focus on one out of several themes brought up.

Despite that though, I am so happy that Alita: Battle Angel exists and will recommend it to anyone who even might have a passing interest in it. These are the films we should be getting behind in the year 2019, the big-budget studio films that are allowed to take risks, even if they don’t quite stick the landing. If we don’t show up to support them, then 20th Century Fox will think all we want is another X-Men sequel. And I don’t know about you, but I’d gladly watch Alita: Battle Angel again over Dark Phoenix.

Writer, filmmaker, and comedy performer living in Winston-Salem NC. I write fantasy, horror, flash fiction, and film/television/music reviews.

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