When I first saw Avatar on the IMAX back in 2009 with my brother and cousin, James Cameron brought me back to a state of childlike awe and wonder that only the most magical of cinematic storytelling can accomplish. Pandora was a dreamland, and the romantic adventure that played out there was as comforting as it was exhilarating, epic and breathtaking.
Cameron and Robert Rodriguez pull off a similar trick with Alita: Battle Angel, which is fantastic fun, with a sweet heart to match its amazing spectacle. Their adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s magna is easily the best 3D I’ve seen since Avatar, with a fantastically endearing and tough heroine, and a world full of possibilities.
Like Dorothy, Charlie Bucket, and Jake Sully before her, Alita is a simple and grounded protagonist who is able to witness the wondrous and take part in it. Their motives are obvious and their internal process is external. A direct reaction to their incredible new environments. We needn’t go much beyond the surface when the surface is so magnificent.
Iron City is an incredible setting, both haunting and enchanting. We see a post-humanist future with a sprawling metropolis filled with cyborgs and mechanically enhanced humans of every culture left on Earth after some unspeakable war lays underneath the ominous city in the sky Zalem.
Doe-eyed, curious, and fierce, Alita is a memorable and endearing heroine who embodies both the wonders of technology as well as the vulnerability of humanity. Rosa Salazar’s She can hold her own in an all-out battle against gigantic cyborg fiends in the high octane sport of motorball, and she can also discover that chocolate is her favorite food and awaken her father with a kiss on the cheek. She is warrior and daughter, pioneer and newcomer, surrogate for the audience and leader of the bold adventure we are privy to. She excels as a female lead in a fantastical setting without the need to capitalize the HER in hero. The combination of innocence and battle-readiness draws comparisons to Luke Skywalker and Bilbo Baggins.
In his review of Alfonzo Arau’s A Walk in the Clouds, that underrated and breathtaking romantic fantasy, Roger Ebert said of the central performance,”Keanu Reeves brings to the role an artless simplicity. He realizes that this material cannot be touched with the slightest hint of self-awareness: Paul must be completely in and of this story. Reeves’ performance is almost transparent, and that is the highest compliment I can pay it.” I would say the same thing of Rosa Salazar’s star-making turn as Altia. This is a fun story, and she has to have fun. She needs to sell us on the stakes of the break-neck action of motorball, as well as the delights of discovering chocolate and oranges for the first time. The ascent must be triumphant with a respect to recent tragedy, not melodramatic. There’s no room for irony here or smirking behind the camera, and Rosa knows it. As the plucky cyborg girl, she takes her role earnestly, and so do we.
The rest of the cast is impeccable as well. Christoph Waltz’s Dyson can be both cold and driven or warm and paternal, inhabiting the roles of scientist, bounty hunter, and father equally convincing. Keean Johnson is a discovery as Hugo, a product of the streets and conflicted about where the scavenger life has taken him, his world changed by this strange new Alita. Jennifer Connelly’s Chiren, stern and sexy, a woman whose reaction to losing their child takes her in an entirely different direction than Dyson, hits an intriguing note of moral complexity and mercenary survival. Also, Casper Van Dien, Rico himself, as a force of nature made of metal and fury.
The 3D is not a cheap gimmick to make tickets more expensive, but a wonderfully expressive device that adds depth and dimension. This setting is incredibly realized and the images flow in a complete and immersive way, giving us the impression that we could climb up right onto screen and beyond, entering a magical new world.
There is a video from around the time Avatar of James Cameron being pestered. When Cameron tries to move on with his entourage, the supposed “fan” badgering him gets angry and starts to mock the director, at one point yelling that a kindergartner could follow the plot of Cameron’s masterpiece, as if that’s such a bad thing.
In the harasser’s mind, this is a cogent criticism, but what of it? Whoever said that great art must be incomprehensible (thank you TV Tropes), let alone that a great story must be hard to follow? I’m reminded of Hemmingway’s pithy response to Faulkner, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
Both great writers, don’t get me wrong. But the point is that whether you use a ten dollar word or a one dollar word, what matters is how you use them. Likewise, there of course can be merit in a very simple story.
The plot needn’t be complex, nor even the execution subtle. I’ve noticed this for some time, in The Place Beyond The Pines, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (the best film of 2018), and in most comic books at least up to Supergirl’s heartbreaking stream-of-conscious monologue before her sacrifice in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Sometimes it’s just refreshing to be direct, to let characters say what they’re thinking without complication or subtext affected simply for obfuscation sake with the pretense of sophistication. Subtext, I’m not afraid to say it, is overrated. Real life, or haven’t you noticed, is quite often on-the-nose.
Which brings me to Alita: Battle Angel, which is a great movie but not a subtle one. Robert Rodriguez and Cameron’s collaboration is prima facie a visceral masterpiece, a triumph of the craft and medium, well worth the two decades of development. What shouldn’t be overlooked in the face of the stunning technical achievement and breathtaking visuals, is, like Avatar before it in chronicling Jake Sully’s epic journey from wounded warrior to empowerment, love, and transcendence with the Na’vi, is that this film is also a wonderful accomplishment in character and story, and what does it matter if it’s obvious? The resonant and powerful themes of self-discovery, family,leadership, and redemption come across beautifully. We know immediately, just by seeing what’s on the screen, that Dyson sees Alita as a surrogate for his daughter and that that fatherhood becomes real, that Alita’s instant infatuation with Hugo is as obvious as any teenager’s. Alita can declare her intentions to unite the hunter-warriors. Zalem can be challenged. I’m glad I heard dialogue as unobtuse as “Can a human love a cyborg?”, because it is direct and earnest. There’s a scene where Alita literally gives Hugo her heart to hold in his hands, and it’s as intense as she says it is. A story this accessible can be quite powerful.
This is a story of self-discovery, of romance, of redemption. These universal human themes are wonderfully realized in a fantastical setting. It is one of the most impressive gifts of the greatest fantasies to do so. In some ways, it’s easy to see the world Alita inhabits as ominous and dystopian. After all, how did mankind fall so far, into such a wrecked metropolis with such wreckage and carnage? Yet there is that most innate and important of qualities, the gift after The Garden, the last item in Pandora’s Box, what Charles Xavier extols as the most human part of us: Hope. It’s how Dyson can become a helper to his community and father to Alita after his own daughter was killed. It’s what drives Hugo to give up the life of a vulture for compassion. And it’s what gives Alita herself to climb to Zalem. It’s not how far we fall, you see, how how high we rise that matter. With stunning cinematic vision and a lot of heart, they bring that ideal to life, and the future is bright.