Every now and then, Hollywood gives us a gigantic sci-fi film so fully committed to its world and premise that it flies directly into the sun of niche appeal ludicrousness, finding a special place in the hearts of die-hard fans but landing with something of a thud elsewhere. While the long-gestating Alita: Battle Angel never quite reaches the lunatic highs of films like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian, it’s brimming with giddy love and enthusiasm for its source material (the manga by Yukito Kishiro) to such an extent that you’ll struggle to keep a smile off your face.
Rosa Salazar gives a strong performance-captured turn as the titular teenage cyborg, found with her core intact by kindly Dr Ido (Christoph Waltz in surprisingly effective dad mode) and given a new body. Alita has no memories, but when she ends up in a life-or-death fight with a band of deadly cyborgs, she realises that she has incredible abilities. As she falls head over heels for young scrapper Hugo (Keean Johnson), her search for her true identity keeps pulling her into conflict, which draws the attention of sinister Motorball chief and black market king Vector (Mahershala Ali, going full anime villain).
The film is a collaboration between co-writer/producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez, and the two personalities mesh smoothly. Neither one is shy about sporting their influences or laying on the cheese and they both love to show off their tech, both on-screen and off, so it’s not surprising that it’s dazzling to look at. All that time and money is up there on the screen, from the Motorball fight-chases to big-eyed Alita herself, who skates that tricky uncanny valley line with grace.
However, for all the set-pieces and innovations, the script proves to be the biggest challenge. There’s an exposition info-dump every ten minutes, the characterisation is two-dimensional and Alita’s romance with Hugo delivers dialogue that thuds so hard it jolts you out of the blissful “I can’t believe this got made” reverie that the more outlandish moments provide. It’s also worth noting that for all the attempts to rebuff criticism of whitewashing, the film is not exactly brimming with Asian actors.
Still, it’s hard to argue too much with a film that offers this kind of rare escapism as weird cameos, nonsensical plot developments and thrilling action abound. The filmmakers are obviously having a brilliant time, but what makes it work in spite of its flaws is that they’re so clearly dying to bring the audience along with them. Yes, it’s big, silly and cheesy, but it’s heartfelt and really quite loveable. Whether it connects with the greater moviegoing public remains to be seen, but let’s hope it find the cult fandom it deserves.