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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is throwback to simpler time

February 16, 2019

With a heart as large as its main character’s oversized eyes, “Alita: Battle Angel” is at once a throwback to a simpler time of big-budget action and a technological leap forward in terms of its design and digital craftsmanship.

It’s perhaps director Robert Rodriguez’s strongest work since 2005’s “Sin City,” and a further example that, regardless of your feelings about writer/executive producer James Cameron, the man certainly knows how to build worlds that feel lived in and fleshed out.

Based on the popular magna comic from Yukito Kishiro, “Alita” breaks no new ground with its narrative, stitching together pieces from “Frankenstein,” “Rollerball,” “Speed Racer,” and even Rodriguez’s own “Spy Kids.” But the result is crafted with such attention to detail and care for its characters that it’s hard to deny its charms once things get moving.

Rodriguez brings a laser-focused approach to this tale of a cyborg (played by Rosa Salazar) who is cobbled together from scraps found in a futuristic dystopian junkyard. Cybernetic specialist Dr. Ido (played by Christoph Waltz), outfits her still-functioning human brain with some new robotic components, even though she cannot recall her past memories. She discovers that she has a knack for battle, which comes in handy given their hardscrabble life living in the ruins. It follows the familiar structure of most young-adult narratives, as she learns to grapple with her abilities and nourish a burgeoning romance with a local human, Hugo (played by Keean Johnson).

And while that may be the film’s weakest aspect, it allows Rodriguez and co-writer/producer Cameron to build a world that is familiar, yet filled with exciting new details and nuances. Most interestingly, it’s crafted through highly choreographed action sequences that are perhaps some of the most thrilling, fluid and coherent ever filmed of the genre.

Much of the action entails Alita and friends both eluding and seeking the help of a network of bounty hunters responsible for tracking down rogue humans and cyborgs who salvage various body parts to create weaponized battle-bots.

The sequences are fast-paced and flashy, but always engaging, and it’s punctuated by a number of extreme sports bouts of a game called motorball, which is a combination of basketball, roller derby and NASCAR.

The film does slow down periodically, and it’s bolstered by an impressive adult cast including Jennifer Connelly as Dr. Ido’s ex-wife, and Mahershala Ali as her new husband and black market vendor. The cyborg-related theme works wonderfully with the aspect of “becoming,” as Alita begins her literal and metaphorical road to discovering who (or what) she is and where she fits in. It’s escapism in the finest of forms, as the audience feels like an active participant throughout, whereas many times in other films, we are left at arm’s length, forced to watch the action like following someone playing a video game with no extra controller for us to join in. In doing so, “Alita” gives us a world to which we will gladly return, so that we, too, can join in for future adventures.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.