FILM REVIEW – ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. With Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley. Written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. 122 minutes.
For those who saw “Terminator 2” (1991) on its original release, there was a moment that changed everything. Robert Patrick, as the film’s villainous T-1000 cyborg, is in pursuit of our heroes when he finds his way blocked by bars… and so he oozes through them, re-forming on the other side. It wasn’t the first use of CGI special effects, but it was like nothing we had ever seen on screen, at least in a live action film. It looked so real it was hard to believe it wasn’t.
The film’s director was James Cameron whose subsequent films continued to push the technological limits of what’s possible to do on film. For ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, he’s handed the directorial reins over to Robert Rodriguez, although remaining as one of the film’s producers and sharing screenwriting credit with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis. This science fiction action film should engage fans of the genre, but all movie lovers will want to take note of the eye-popping breakthrough that is center stage.
Based on the popular Japanese manga (their version of comic books), Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens in the home of Dr. Dyson Ido (Christopher Waltz). It’s a post-apocalyptic world where the privileged live in a flying city and everyone else – like Ido – tries to survive down below. One of the things he does is pick through the huge trash mounds of things dumped from up above, where he discovers a partial cyborg with its brain intact. He uses this as a basis to revive her only to discover she has no memory of who she is or where she comes from.
The story that ensues is one of self-discovery, with the help of Ido and a new friend Hugo (Keann Johnson). She also comes to the attention of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a shady and powerful figure, and Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who happens to be Ido’s ex-wife. As the title suggests, Alita soon discovers not only things like chocolate, but that she seems to have been programmed with incredible fighting skills. This leads to action scenes involving increasingly bizarre cyborgs, including the monstrous Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley).
Beyond the world-building, including a sporting event that seems like a cross between “Rollerball” and “Tron,” what’s notable about the film is Alita herself. The first thing you’ll notice is her outsized eyes, a nod to her origins in manga where characters are often drawn that way. The second thing you may not notice at all, and that’s why this film is a special effects landmark. The Alita we see run and fight and even engage in a soulful kiss is a computer construct. Rosa Salazar wore equipment that captured not only her physical movements, but her voice and facial expressions, so that the performance is wholly hers, but the character we see on screen owes as much to computer animation as the characters in “Toy Story.”
What they seem to have conquered is what’s known as “the uncanny valley,” which refers to artificial constructs becoming more disturbing the more realistic they seem to be. A good example of this is “The Polar Express” (2004), an animated film in which the performances were generated through motion capture technology, and which left many people creeped out at the soulless homunculi who appeared on screen. The key seems to be the eyes. When motion capture is used to create imaginary creatures – Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” or the Na’vi in “Avatar” – it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Perhaps it’s Alita’s large eyes that helps to avoid the problem but watching “Alita” you have no reason to doubt that she’s as real as anyone else on screen.
“Alita” gives us a heroine to cheer on, and a breakthrough in special effects that amazes.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.