Synopsis – A deactivated female cyborg is revived, but cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is.
My Take – Looking at the ever growing popularity of anime and manga around the world, for years Hollywood studios have been trying to cash in on their demand by attempting to adapt various source materials into live action format to diminishing results. Large scale adaptions like Death Note, Dragonball Evolution and Ghost in the Shell has been critical and commercial disappointments, and it wasn’t that these titles needed a big name director either because even a thespian like Spike Lee adapted the Oldboy manga to horrifying results. However, with filmmaker James Cameron trying his hand, things may be a bit different going forward.
This film based on on the Japanese manga “Gunnm” from comic book artist Yukito Kishiro, was originally announced back in 2003, right after Cameron bought the film rights, but production kept delaying due to his impending work on Avatar and its sequels. And despite working on the script on-and-off for two decades, he ended up ceding directing duties to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn) and co-writing duties to Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon), once production on four Avatar sequels took priority. But Cameron has remained the screenwriter, and retained the producer title, probably a reason why his fingerprints on the project remain so evident.
Despite how underwhelming its trailers may have seemed like, there is no doubt that this film is an outstanding spectacle from the word go and Rosa Salazar’s motion-capture performance coupled with the incredible effects is a wonder to behold.
However, while the film perfectly captures the much touted visual effects beautifully, it also suffers from the same problem that often plague Cameron projects, i.e. despite being an ambitious and technologically impressive film its dragged down by a lousy script. Had it been more engaging with respect to humor, twists and turns in the story-line, this film would have been perfect. But considering the impressive CGI and unaltered source material, this is probably the best anime adaption till date.
Set in the year 2563, about three hundred years after an apocalyptic event known as The Fall, the story follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), a cyborg with an intact human brain, who was found dissembled by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cyborg scientist, in the junkyard of Iron City, a vast ground-level metropolis of ramshackle buildings and criminals of every variety, where the remainder of all sentient life on Earth has concentrated itself, while the others reside in glorious sky city of Zalem, which is filled with tantalizing luxury.
While Ido quickly reassembles Alita with a body he had previously made for his daughter before she was killed by a rogue cyborg years earlier, she wakes up to realize that she has no recollection of her past life, and Ido decides that its of their best interest if Alita doesn’t attract any attention due to her uniqueness. However her natural martial arts talents surface as soon as she is introduced to the competitive sport of Motorball, a gladiatorial track battle in which cyborgs fight to the death, by Hugo (Keean Johnson), one of the residents of Iron City.
Hereby gathering the attention of Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido’s ex-wife, who builds professional Motorball cyborg athletes under the management of Vector (Mahershala Ali), an entrepreneur, who is secretly working for the mysterious Nova, a Zalem scientist, who wants more than ever to find Alita and makes her the target of assassins like Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and Zapan (Ed Skrein), a cyborg bounty hunter.
Here, the film offers up a vision of the future that invokes future-shock science fiction from The Fifth Element to Dark City to Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, while establishing its own uniquely weightless sense of style along the way. The film works in a number of different modes, but in the end it is meant to be a technical showcase. Whatever you might think of Cameron’s obsession with film as a conduit for modern technological advancement, it’s undeniable that his imprint exists all over this film which draws direct attention to its dizzying layers of artistically rendered artifice at every possible moment.
Here, director Rodriguez makes the endless rooftops and gangways of Iron City integral to so many of the film’s fight and/or chase set-pieces, constantly establishing the outer limits of his boundless world as the film rolls along. The film had the benefit of being a project of Weta Digital, one of the premier FX houses in the world, responsible for films like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Avengers: Infinity War, and Game of Thrones Season 8. While it sometimes struggles to match that sense of invention in its storytelling, the visual splendor of the film often overwhelms most of the concerns you could have. The heights induce terrifying vertigo, the catacombs under the city threaten violence around every corner.
What the film does best is showcase the tech wizardry behind bringing the lead CGI character to life. Here, Alita moves through the air with ease, and many of the cyborgs fell organic to the proceedings. Even the problem with the Alita’s large anime eyes has been fixed, with the special FX team finding a happy medium. It was important for Alita to be a believable character in this world, interacting with other humans without it looking unnatural.
The technology doesn’t work without an actor and Salazar is up to the task. She characterizes Alita as someone who is just discovering a magical world, but who also has a lot of command over her life. She’s innocent but not afraid. And when the time comes to protect those that she loves, she is ready.
I built a genuine affinity for Alita – part human, part machine – who cares deeply but also knows how to kick some serious butt. Her character and acting is what made this film, they give her a human soul and a purpose with the writing which is so well done, it gives the audience an emotional journey of a young woman trying to discover who she is. The romance between Alita and Hugo drives the film, notwithstanding her remarkable skill set, which she uses to great effect. There is a lot of relatable humanity in this cyborg character and the film benefits as a result.
The film is also a no holds bar when it comes to anime violence, which is hardly surprising with director, Robert Rodriguez. The film is wonderfully unashamed to do the anime things that Hollywood has always felt too awkward to accomplish.
However, being the best manga adaptation yet also comes with some limitations. It’s not that Cameron and Kalogridis’ screenplay is necessarily bad, it just doesn’t organically flow together as much as it feels stitched together. Multiple points in the film signal the end of one narrative arc, only for the story to take a hard left turn and focus on another problem. It’s tough to wrap your head around all the politicking and history that culminates in Alita’s story, and I found myself not caring very much about many of the side characters.
For example, Vector spends about as much of his screen time functioning as a mouthpiece for another character as he does as himself, and the film never even seems to decide on whether the mysterious Chiren is a morally complicated hero or an inscrutable antagonist. Considering the film’s tendency to introduce the audience to information long before its characters, there’s a substantial deal of waiting throughout Alita, time which could have been spent on character and is instead burned off on hit-or-miss banter.
As mentioned above, Rosa Salazar provides a unique performance necessary for a film relying completely on its lead to work. Distancing from his usual negative roles, Christoph Waltz brings here a sharp restrain to his performance here. However, it’s unfortunate to witness powerhouse Oscar winning actors like Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali being underused here, in characters with grey shades which are never full developed.
In supporting roles, Keean Johnson, Ed Skrein, Idara Victor, Jackie Earle Haley, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Lana Condor leave their mark. Eiza González, Jeff Fahey, Rick Yune, Jai Courtney, Casper Van Dien, and Edward Norton appear in interesting cameos. On the whole, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is a defiantly geeky sci-fi film which despite a deficient story arc deserves a watch for its well-constructed action scenes and awesome visual effects.
Directed – Robert Rodriguez
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 122 minutes