★★★★ - STUFF
- On a routine search of the Iron City junkpile, Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) makes an amazing discovery.
Seemingly discarded from the last of Earth's great sky cities Zalem, it's the head and torso of a total replacement cyborg with a very human brain that still appears to be functional.
Taking it back to his rooms, the cybersurgeon grafts the remains onto limbs that are very precious to him – those once destined for her paralysed daughter.
Deciding to name his new house guest Alita (Rosa Salazar) in her honour, Ido sets about introducing "her" to life in 2563.
But while she has what appears to be a "normal healthy teenage girl's brain", she also possesses a heart that could power a city.
Worried that Alita might become a target, Ido tries to keep her confined, but the excitement of trying chocolate for the first time, meeting Ido's handsome courier Hugo (Keean Johnson) and witnessing the sport of motorball prove far too tempting.
Having spent almost 25 years in development hell, James Cameron's vision of bringing Yukito Kishiro's 1990s manga series Gunnm (known in the west as Battle Angel Alita) to life has finally come to fruition – with jaw-dropping results.
That's thanks largely to the Wellington-based wizards of Weta Digital, who transform young actress Salazar (Netflix's Bird Box) and others into stunning CGI creations which manage to, despite her enlarged Puss-in-Boots-esque eyes, avoid the dreaded "uncanny valley" which so disturbs viewers looking at computer-created humanoids (we've come a long way from 2001's Final Fantasy movie).
Credit too Cameron and fellow screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys) for crafting a surprisingly emotional (you'll believe a cyborg can cry), if hardly original tale. Fans of the genre will certainly recognise story beats and ideas from the likes of Elysium, The Running Man, Oblivion and Ghost in the Shell (Salazar's character even sounds similar to Scarlett Johansson's Major), but this doesn't leave you cold in the way that latter anime adaptation did.
This may be a sci-fi fantasy, but it has also been released on Valentine's Day for a reason – deep down this is a love story to rival Cameron's blockbusting, Oscar-gobbling Titanic, or that other blue-hued eco-movie that he's currently making a bunch of sequels too.
Not that Alita stints on spectacle either. There's just as much rock-em, sock-em robot action as the title suggests, with Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Machete, Sin City) taking every opportunity to showcase his skills at choreographing fight scenes and heart-pounding chase sequences. He also does a good job of striking a balance between making you believe Iron City is a place "where people do terrible things to one another" and not making it too violent for older tweens and young teens to watch (perhaps a result of making his quadrilogy of Spy Kids movies).
Throw in an impressive supporting cast that includes Jennifer Connolly, Mahershala Ali, Jack Earle Hayley and Michelle Rodriguez and the result is an absorbing, entertaining rollercoaster ride that – fingers-crossed – may allow Alita to fight another day.
- James Croot, STUFF