It’s been five years since Robert Rodriguez has put out a feature film (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) but it’s been a bit longer since he had a hit. His films have always been an interesting mixture of genres. He loves the campiness of “B films” (hence his Grindhouse film) and always adds to it which makes the film seem “cringey” but I always believed it was on purpose. On top of that, he has an affixation to digital cinema. In the wonderful documentary Side by Side (a documentary regarding shooting on film versus digital) he speaks about how when George Lucas said that digital was the future, he figured why would he argue with a legend in the film making world.
Alita has been a film in the making for quite some time now. While first announced in 2003, it has taken a back seat since James Cameron became obsessed with Avatar. And while that was happening, Robert Rodriguez was also obsessed but with wanting to find out what was ever going to happen with the movie. Fast forward to 2015, Rodriguez was in negotiations to direct the film and he tackled slimming down Cameron’s 189 page script, and once he did, Cameron approved and offered the job to him.
Frankly, I’m not sure what Rodriguez cut out but I’m glad. I’m not at all familiar with the source material but I can’t imagine them milking this story to be at least 3 hours long. Not to say that the finished product is long, it is a nice and lean two hours and a lot is going on that you don’t feel the length. It very clearly is preparing itself and the audience for sequels in the final moments of the film and that’s the only time you start to question the film wondering how much more can they try and sneak past you.
Alita is a cyborg from before the big war (called The Fall) and has somehow survived the past 300 years in a junkyard. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds her and gives her a body that he has been holding onto for a few years. As Alita wakes up, she has no memory of who she used to be, so as she figures herself out, she stays with him as he becomes a father figure and he slowly raises her. She then meets Hugo and he helps show her more of the world that Ido can not.
The film is shot by the always exquisite Bill Pope and together with Rodriguez, they help create a world that feels like the future but also is clearly inspired by South America, and the Hispanic actors and actual Spanish speaking characters are proof of that. It is both stylish and clean, even if the film might want to lean into the grimy of brutality that is shown. The film is rated PG-13 and it feels like because the blood isn’t red, otherwise it might be. That, and the fact the film uses and properly uses the only one F-bomb, and when it happens you will want to cheer.
Outside of Christoph Waltz, Rodriguez also gets a pretty all-star cast to fill in the secondary characters. Mahershala Ali plays a surrogate villain (which reminds me of Jupiter Ascending when Eddie Redmayne played a villain in a “bad” film as he won an Oscar), Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Rodriguez in an almost recognizable role. Not to mention Ed Skrien, Jackie Earle Haley and an uncredited Edward Norton. But none of that is truly crucial because the star of the film truly is Rosa Salazar who plays Alita. She plays her in a way that is both utterly charming, endearing but with a turn of a hand movement become both intimidating and an utter badass. Typically, I’d be against the main character being too overpowered but it really works well in this film.
As the film progresses, you’ll learn that she wasn’t necessarily one of the “good guys”, and while her or the audience can ask or assume that she’ll return to her old ways, Ido makes a point to tell her that was only a shell of who she used to be. It’s up to her if she would like to be good or bad, nobody else’s. Even in the darkest of times, I think we all need to choose to be good whenever we can, and this film makes one hell of a good time in the form of an argument for one.