Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Action/Adventure/Romance Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: February 14, 2019
Scott, it’s time to review the elite new Science Fiction film, Alita.
Greg, I’m thirsty. I think I need Alita of Pepsi to give me the energy to review this movie, Greg. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) who has found the head of a bit of robotic junk that happens to look a lot like a teenage girl with oversized eyes. He installs the head on the robotic body that was intended for his own dead daughter who was unable to walk. He names this new girl Alita (Rosa Salazar) after his daughter. Naturally, she has no memory of her previous life and so walks around the gritty post-apocalyptic world with wide eyes. She meets a flesh-and-blood boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) and falls in love. All she wants to know is who she is and where she came from.
Hugo shows Alita the town of Iron City. She shows great interest in a street game called motorball, a violent sport involving cyborgs and humans skating in competition to deposit a ball into a goal. One night Alita follows Dr. Ido when he goes out. She discovers that he is a hunter-warrior, and she comes to Ido’s aid when he is attacked by three cyborg assassins, led by Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). During the attack Alita discovers she has highly advanced martial arts skills, giving clues to her true identity.
Scott, Alita is the latest manga-inspired movie reimagined by master filmmaker James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez. It is truly a visual feast brought to life by director of photography Bill Pope (remember The Matrix?). Virtually every character in this film is a CGI creation. I’m not sure if it was intended, but they all seem a bit cartoony. This wasn’t a problem except for Alita herself. She was so close to human that the subtle CGI differences were a distraction. There were times when her facial expressions were so human that I felt immediate empathy. Then, in the next scene she looked like a character out of Disney’s Frozen. Most of the physics in the film looked spot-on… but then her hair seemed unnaturally buoyant. This split between reality and fantasy was a constant distraction that pulled me out of the story.
As for the story itself, it was engaging. Like Pinocchio before her, she was a puppet on a journey to find herself and become a ‘real girl’ – replete with a kindly old German doll maker. She knew she was not human but needed to find her origins. And, luckily, her new boyfriend takes her to a 300 year-old starship from the Mars army that coincidentally had a battle-body perfectly suited to her needs and also helps her find her memory.
I get the feeling that Cameron had to pack a whole-lotta story into a 2-hour film, because the movie is very fast-paced and skirts over a ton of backstory. (The original manga was a serial from 1990-1995). But kudos to him because it is a complete story. There is a lot that’s predictable and even familiar (the winner-take-all roller derby game she plays in reminded me of 1975’s Rollerball and The Hunger Games) But I had a good time and wouldn’t mind seeing future sequels (and it looks like sequels are coming).
Greg, Alita may be a futuristic sci-fi film but it has all the elements of ancient hero tales told throughout the ages. Recently, we reviewed Finding Joe, a documentary that skillfully elucidates Joseph Campbell’s eternal truths about the hero’s journey, which is also the human journey. Alita encapsulates those timeless insights to the letter. When we meet Alita, she suffers from amnesia and is completely oblivious to her true special nature. To recover her memory, she receives help from two sources: (1) encounters with challenges in the world, and (2) her mentor, Dr. Ido. This discovery of one’s True Self is always the classic pattern in hero mythology. Sure enough, Alita’s genuine place in the world as a highly advanced warrior is revealed. Her metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly inspires us and calls us all to go on our individual journey, too.
One other notable feature of Alita is the film’s stunning CGI effects. Just when we think filmmakers can’t possibly improve on the moviegoing experience, they up the ante and find new ways to dazzle us. Alita gives us a collection of unforgettable cyborg characters, and Alita’s fight scenes with them take The Matrix effects to a whole new level of awesomeness. My big regret is not seeing Alita in 3D, as I’ve heard this film is a must-see beyond two dimensions.
Greg, you mention a “cartoony” look to the characters, and I would say that a downside to Cameron’s ability to manipulate images onscreen is that Alita’s cartoonish face is dominated by her impossibly large eyes. Yes, these eyes are big and beautiful but they are also unnatural – and perhaps that’s the point. Alita takes place in an unnatural world. Still, I can’t help feeling that this distorted image of female beauty puts pressure on women to conform to an impossible standard. It would be like giving Hugo impossibly large biceps. Hugo can be attractive without them in the same way that Alita can be attractive with normal-sized eyes.
Yet, time and again Alita surprised me with its heart, sweetness, and soul. I was worried going into this film that we’d be subjected to a cold, cruel futuristic reality lacking any feeling. While partly true, Alita is first and foremost a love story about a woman brimming with a passion for life and a deep compassion for those in need of help. Those large cartoonish eyes of hers are so remarkably expressive and moving to us. While there is plenty of fun in the form of “motorball”, the depth of our characters’ humanity is explored in Alita’s relationship with Ido and with her love interest Hugo.
Alita: Battle Angel is a Disney-esque futuristic fantasy that is fun and engaging. While it was predictable, it was also very fast-paced without a single extraneous scene. I wish the CGI were either more realistic or less realistic. The dichotomy between real-life characters and cartoonish 3D characters pulled me out of the story. I give Alita 4 out of 5 Reels.
Alita is a classic hero worthy of Campbell’s mythology. She starts out in a world beyond her understanding, not fitting in, and not knowing who she is. Ultimately, she regains her history and finds a place in this new world, a new mission (to kill Zalem), and fueled by a lost love. I give Alita 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The message isn’t delivered with a lot of power, as this is mostly an action/adventure. I think we can glean “be true to yourself,” or “love triumphs over evil.” Or maybe, if you have a bionic heart, keep it to yourself as it will come in handy later when you want to destroy the evil overlords. I give Alita just 2 Message points.
Greg, it sounds like you and I were stuck in the uncanny valley, that uncomfortable place where nearly-realistic computer-generated images creep us out a bit. Pardon the pun, but maybe Alita’s oversized eyes will grow on us.
Overall, Alita: Battle Angel is an extraordinary technical achievement that also approaches the level of extraordinary as a film achievement. Greg, your analogy to Pinocchio is spot-on. This is a story of an almost-human child struggling to find her humanity with assistance from her “maker”, Dr. Ido. I’m a sucker for any movie where the hero’s mission is to discover her True Self, especially when such a discovery inspires the acquisition of some inspiring heroic traits. There will likely be a sequel that illuminates the identity of the villainous mastermind whom we only get sneak peeks of. Like you, Greg, I give Alita 4 Reels out of 5.
What’s not to love about a story that taps into Joseph Campbell’s most cherished mythological storylines about discovering one’s true heroic identity? This movie does it about as well as any movie can. I should also emphasize that once again we have a strong female lead character who embodies both masculine and feminine stereotypes, i.e., the kick-ass traits that only men were once allowed to have along with nurturant traits which were once only the purview of women. I give our hero the full 5 Hero points out of 5.
The message of the story is that at all costs, we must all rigorously pursue the truth of who we genuinely are. Alita is fearless in her determination to discover her identity and to become who she is meant to be. Joseph Campbell emphasized the importance of having the courage to enter the dark forest of life where there is no path; it is up to us to create our own path. I give this message 5 Message points out of 5.