Alita: Battle Angel has a heart as big as Rosa Salazar’s bulging eyes. Her character’s heart is a bioengineered component full of otherworldly energy. It’s the ticking connective tissue that energizes the new film. In one of the most comedically touching moments, she pulls her heart from her chest and offers it to her love interest. Sorry, she can come on a little intense, she demurs. This is clearly a product close to producer James Cameron’s heart, who’s held onto his manga adaptation for twenty years, before handing over directing duties to a game Robert Rodriguez. Much like Alita handing over her heart, it’s clear that he’s passed on a great passion project, which waited in the wings until technology could catch up with the zenith of its high ambitions.
Given that this is Cameron and Rodriguez, the implication is that we’ll be watching the film in 3D. This is a rare treatise on 3D filmmaking that was so common only a decade ago, a pure argument for form and function. There is no question the best way to see Alita is in 3D. It’s a hyperkinetic visual delight and something would be missed from the heroine’s catlike choreography and the film’s steady world building to reduce it to a flat picture. It’s not clear if modern technology has allowed something earth shattering or new that Cameron has held out for, but it instead works as a remarkable spectacle of optical illusion.
Right in Rodriguez’s wheelhouse, his version of Alita can feel like an expression of the things he loves. Tapping into Cameron’s 3D technology, he made a great argument for popularizing the format in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003), the same spirited sense of adventure carries here. His grindhouse acumen and love for exploitative women-in-parts plays out from minor entries like Planet Terror (2007), while the broad sword as a character trait carries over from the Machete entries. His acumen for fully digitized sets pays off from his more two-dimensional work on Sin City (2005). The idea is you could draw a pretty straight line through the director’s work that makes him the ideal candidate for the job and that all of his lessons from the past show through like he’s obtained an academic understanding of fun for fun’s sake.
When Alita begins to buckle under the weight of its long gestation and wild excessive of concepts, Salazar ably rights the ship. Her performance is dynamic and genuine, finding the humanity in a film that could so easily feel made by computers. Her co-stars do not fare as well. A bored Christoph Waltz is a doctor who’s rescued Alita, building her out of cybernetic components, and naming her after his dead daughter. They share cute moments, like Alita discovering food – she eats an orange, rind and all, and has a startling revelation when he instructs her to eat the slices inside. Keean Johnson, also vaguely bored, but in awe of Salazar, plays her love interest who’s initially only interested in dismembering her for parts. Mahershala Ali does just fine as a big bad dude but does not inspire excessive interest. The thing is that everyone, but Alita, is muted and plays off her character successes. Nobody else gets the role of a lifetime or sufficient time to develop beyond type.
The action plays with the greatest credibility. Rodriguez has a good eye and allows violence to unfold with neatly formed results. Much of the movement revolves around an exciting invented sport called Motorball. This is basically Roller Derby on motorized skates. The stakes are high, and playing in the official tournament is the only means of reaching the sky city, the point of salvation, and the ultimate desired destination for any of the citizens in the underlying junkyard. Their eyes always drift upwards as though watching god and seeking heaven that they are not totally sure exists. Some big late reveals find Alita with hundreds of years of lived memory and an ability to reform her old body, making her a dreaded combatant and electric Roller Derby athlete.
Alita: Battle Angel is the finest recent argument for 3D in film. It is our best argument for 3D since Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and Cameron’s Avatar (2009) before it. A clear victory for its producer, Alita delivers on decades of James Cameron’s daydreams. If it feels like it’s been too long in gestation, that is because it has been. The final product has too many ideas at once and builds toward an ending it may never get to fulfill in sequel. This first entry is optimistic and earnest enough that we’d genuinely love to see it more fully explored. It’s incredibly likely that Alita will not make a return at theaters and then will go on to great cult success on video, belying the excellence of its 3D. It’s destined for this outcome.