Alita: Battle Angel review: Fun but forgettable sci-fi
James R | On 16, May 2020
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali
Watch Alita: Battle Angel online in the UK: Disney+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Blade Runner. Metropolis. Children of Men. Some of the best dystopian thrillers remain timeless with no sense of when they were made. Alita: Battle Angel, the latest from Robert Rodriguez, feels like a film made 20 years ago, for better and worse.
The film follows the eponymous young woman (Rosa Salazar), who awakes one day to discover she has no memory of anything in her past. Taken in by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cyberphysician, she’s a mechanical fish out of water in Iron City, a place where the only way for people to get out of their tough existence on the streets is to compete in the lethal sport of motorball. Somewhere between Scalextric and roller derby, it sees robo-enhanced racers chase each other round a gigantic track, disposing of opponents as they go. With parts flying everywhere, that’s where Ido steps in to make his living: he mends and repairs others. But Alita soon realises that she’s also a repair job: a consciousness transferred into the body that was once intended for Ido’s daughter.
And so begins a quest to unearth her history. The result is a predictable ride through a checklist of sci-fi components. There’s a sinister conspiracy from the wealthy higher-ups, a brutal sporting competition that distracts the masses, a mysterious, creepy villain (Mahershala Ali) with his own connections to Alita’s family, and, of course, the growing suspicion that Alita has some hidden abilities that let her do very, very well at fighting other people.
From the cardboard cut-out love interest to the unsurprising plotting, Alita: Battle Angel struggles to find fresh surprises after generations of more ambitious, genre-twisting sci-fi fare. For all of its focus on upgrades and growing up, Alita mostly feels like a Frankenstein of other movies – the kind that Waltz’s scientist would be well at home with.
It’s nice to see Waltz in a good-guy role, while Ali has fun as the Big Bad, but the cast are as constrained by the script as Robert Rodriguez is at the helm. When those fighting sequences boot up, though, he manages to break out just enough to keep you hooked – the 12A-certificate carnage, more machine than human, is entertaining and fast-paced, from the Rollerball-esque chases to a full-on bar brawl. The world-building may be overly familiar, but it’s also visually stunning, backed up by the CGI that brings Alita to life. The whole endeavour is anchored in Rosa Salazar’s excellent and charmingly naive lead turn, but like Alita herself, it’s a striking flourish that leaves you wondering what more there could have been.
Alita: Battle Angel is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.