I have never recommended seeing a movie in 3-D, let alone IMAX 3-D, because films should either succeed in 2-D or they aren’t worth seeing. But for Alita: Battle Angel, I will—for the first time—tell you to splurge on the IMAX. I can’t stop dreaming about the glimmering city in the clouds that hovers above the film’s sci-fi setting.
Alita is as much about what’s in the distance as it is about what’s coming toward you—which, BTW, is a giant robot with finger knives! The story (cyborg woman is found comatose in trash heap, makes heroic journey to rediscover her past and her martial arts skills) lovingly smooshes at least three story arcs’ worth of plot into a single 122-minute film. People might say that’s too much, or complain that there are weird scenes where characters point at hunter-warrior bounty hunters and say things like: “That’s a bounty hunter. We call them hunter-warriors.”
But I have no idea how Alita could have been done better. I’ve read all the Battle Angel comics, which manga artist Yukito Kishiro started publishing in 1990, and I could rattle off all the differences and references in director Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation. But I’d rather talk about what this film is: a fun, exhilarating realization of a sci-fi story that, even now, audiences may not be ready for.
Alita is about bodies. Throughout Kishiro’s 30-some graphic novels, Alita loses her eyes. She loses her limbs. Sometimes she gets entirely new bodies. Alita is a coming-of-age tale, but one about rebirth, not youth. It’s about someone who repeatedly thinks her life is over, and each time starts again, using whatever forms she can inhabit.
In the film, there’s an added meta element to all this: Through motion capture, flesh-and-bone actress Rosa Salazar plays the computer-generated Alita. “It’s amazing to see Rosa’s spirit, her light, come through,” producer James Cameron says in a promotional short for the film, and he’s right.
Salazar’s sensitive portrayal—enhanced by Alita’s robotic limbs and oversized, anime eyes—only strengthens the focus on conflict and competition that makes Alita so exciting. From the very start, Kishiro’s Alita was a battle comic—a serialized story to entertain young people with artful fight scenes.
But Alita also asks questions about humanity and its fragility; the story was always meant to be as insightful as it is entertaining. With this visually stunning adaptation, we should applaud Alita’s depth, not split hairs over her eyes—which, in the film, are irresistibly beautiful.