Robert Rodriguez couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. Whether he could make a bad one is a different story altogether — his belated Sin City follow-up, A Dame To Kill For, is one of the ugliest, most confused major studio releases of the last 20 years — but, even when he misses the mark, his unique, anti-art urges ensure that his films have a value entirely of their own.
A lot of that comes down to his visual style, which resembles a cross between a PlayStation 2 cutscene and a safety video at a lasertag centre in the ’90s. But it also comes down to his aesthetic and economic scrappiness. The low-budgets, the slapped together CGI elements, the rushed and frequently confused scripts — these are all parts of the Rodriguez charm, as essential to his cinematic character as long takes are to Ophuls.
For that reason, Rodriguez obsessives could be excused approaching Alita: Battle Angel with caution. It is the most expensive film of his career by far — the thing cost a whopping US$200 million — and it’s the first time the auteur has ever taken over a project developed by someone else, picking up the film after James “Avatar” Cameron spent years developing it.
But somehow, against the odds, Rodriguez has managed to preserve his voice. Alita: Battle Angel might have Cameron’s world building and amplified scale, but it is a Rodriguez picture through and through.
Indeed, despite evidence of behind-the-scenes prodding from Cameron — to describe the film’s abrupt ending as a cliffhanger is an understatement, and Franchise Jim Cameron is clearly angling for a few more Alitas — all of the Rodriguez staples are all here. The tone veers wildly from Saturday morning cartoon madness to genuinely upsetting imagery (brains in vats, sliced up faces, and dog blood all make extensive appearances), the plot tries far too much in far too little time, the romance is leery and deliciously soupy, and the performances are astonishingly sincere.
The plot is far too convoluted to go into in much detail, but it hinges on Alita, the robotic heroine of the title, and her attempts to regain her memory after being slapped into a new body by a (surprisingly and unusually kindly) Christoph Waltz. Before long, she’s coming up against a shadowy gangster, learning the rules of a Murderball-indebted robo-sport, and embarking on a love affair with a handsome young rebel.
Yet all those extensive world-building flourishes and narrative twists and turns prove to be merely an excuse for Rodriguez to fill the picture with his trademark oversaturated, utterly bonkers visual style. Indeed, before long, he seems to lose interest in the plot altogether, as the red herrings and McGuffins pile up, threads get abandoned, and the unanswered questions get lost on the trail (there is a late in the game flashback to armed combat on the moon that had audience members at the screening this critic attended chortling to themselves.)
But that doesn’t diminish from Alita‘s pleasures one bit. In fact, it adds to them. The film is an overstuffed, oversaturated, Baroque epic. Robots get crunched up and spat out in various ways, the cast of characters look like rejects from a Power Rangers spin-off and one of the film’s key plots resolves itself with an image of a slow-motion, armless figure flying through clouds.
That Rodriguez even managed to sneak some of the shit that he does into this ostensibly family friendly, $200 million dollar blockbuster is astonishing. One might imagine that it’s Cameron’s cultural capital that got him this particular blank check — chances are he won’t be able to make another film like it for some time.
Or, indeed, ever. But that’s only what makes Alita that much more special. It is a diamond in the rough: an exciting, explosive action picture that tries a thousand things and nails most of them. It’s exactly the kind of film that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, but should — a character driven, big-budget spectacle that develops a language and a tone entirely of its own, rather than cravenly polishing off its rougher edges in an attempt to appeal to the centre of the aisle.