Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connolly, Mahershala Ali, Keean Johnson, Ed Skrein
Whenever a film comes along that has some kind of new technological advancement behind many of the effects, you can almost always guarantee that James Cameron is involved. Chances are he’s also been waiting a couple of decades for the technology to catch up with his imagination. Alita: Battle Angel is just one of those films that’s been waiting in the wings since before Titanic (the film, not the actual 1912 sinking, though perhaps it feels that long to Cameron). Having given up directorial duties and handed the reins to fellow top filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and stepping back into a producing role while he works on the abundance of Avatar movies, Cameron has once again pushed the boundaries of visual effects in filmmaking. But have he and Rodriguez created an all-rounder, or does the story lack where the effects triumph?
Based on the cyberpunk manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, Alita is set in a dystopian future in the 26th century, three hundred years on from an event known as ‘the fall’, a technological war of some kind. On what is presumed to be Earth is a place known as Iron City, above which floats another city called Zalem, somewhere the people of Iron City are forbidden from going to. Zalem’s trash is deposited in a scrapyard in Iron City, and it’s here where cyber-surgeon Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) discovers an apparently female cyborg core (basically a head, shoulders and heart). On putting the core together with a cybernetic body, Ido gives her the name Alita (Salazar). Having no memory of who she is or where she is from, Alita sets out into Iron City to try and figure out her past with the help of Ido and her new friend Hugo (Johnson). As she begins to find answers and realise that she can’t always trust everyone around her, Alita comes to the conclusion that there’s only one place that holds the truth to her origins, and that’s Zalem.
There are a lot of similarities between Alita: Battle Angel and the likes of The Fifth Element, District 9 and Ghost in the Shell. If you enjoyed those films then you will likely enjoy this one too, however if it’s originality you’re looking for you won’t find it here. Indeed, the effects that Cameron has long awaited in order to bring Alita to life are stunning, with her manga-style eyes and the incredible attention to detail in her movement and life-like features, but the story that surrounds the visuals isn’t quite up to scratch. Cameron, along with Laeta Kalogridis and Rodriguez, has written the story based on selected elements from Kishiro’s manga, and other than the fictional sport ‘Motorball’ there’s no new ground broken – the idea of a mysterious place that no one can reach, cyborgs being the norm (I, Robot suddenly comes to mind to add to the list) and/or someone trying to figure out who they are and where they originated from are pretty standard movie motifs. The production design creates a dingy backdrop to an already seedy world, and it looks good but again is nothing new, particularly when the cyberpunk theme is now quite outdated (though obviously not so when the manga was originally created).
What probably gives the movie a little more edge and creditability is Alita herself as a character. She could quite easily have become an annoying and naïve teenager with mood swings whose only use is for exposition, but instead she is, for lack of a better description, cool. In a similar way to The Fifth Element’s Leeloo, she’s quite easy to like and even empathise with; she’s not stupid and she’s not a damsel in distress. She accepts help when she needs it but she doesn’t seek it. She is a strong female lead in an otherwise male-heavy world. Of course, there is the stereotypical love story arc, but some may be satisfied with the outcome of this particular vein of the film, depending on how you feel about the use of a love story and the way it’s portrayed (that may sound a little ambiguous if you’re yet to see the movie). Ultimately Alita has a backbone (a pretty damn strong one) and she’s not afraid to use it.
Although Alita herself is mostly created through CGI and motion-capture (thanks to the insanely good team at WETA, the talented artists behind Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies), the performance itself is all Salazar (read more about the blend of Alita and Salazar on cnet.com). In the same way Andy Serkis gave Gollum his physical nuances and guided WETA to create a very realistic character in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Salazar’s performance is clear to see through the CGI skin of Alita. It’s she who gives Alita her likability and the soul that appears in those big (CG) eyes. Although she’s surrounded by veterans such as Waltz and Connolly, she completely manages to hold the film on her shoulders and guide audiences through this postapocalyptic future. Thanks to a softer performance from Waltz, who has a lovely chemistry with Salazar, a genuine father/daughter relationship blossoms between Alita and Dr. Ido. Connolly, although billed as a villain, brings depth and inner torment to her character, Chiren. Connolly is one of those actors who can say everything through her eyes, and this is something she definitely utilises here. Ali is once again on our screens, this time as the villainous Vector. It’s not something we’ve really seen from him thus far in his mainstream career, so it’s good to know he can veer off into something a little darker if necessary. Other supporting performances are just that, supportive, but frankly all eyes are really on Salazar and Alita throughout the film.
It’s always interesting to see where Cameron goes with his filmmaking. Whether or not you enjoyed Avatar and are anticipating its ten thousand sequels (hopefully an exaggeration) it can’t be denied that Cameron is a dab hand at pushing technology further and bringing new and exciting levels of visuals to audiences. He would however do well to take a little more care over the stories that he is telling through the use of visual media and not lose the ultimate reasons audiences will love or hate a movie: the story and its characters. Alita: Battle Angel is certainly entertaining and there’s enough there to not let the plot completely fall apart in a pretty standard story structure, but future Cameron projects could run the risk of losing their heart and soul if too much work is put into the outer body and not what’s within. Rodriguez, despite never working with this kind of budget or level of tech on a film, has done a stand-up job of directing, and it probably worked out for the best that Cameron was able to pass the director’s beret over, lest he overexert his capabilities in different aspects of filmmaking. There is a clear lead into a sequel and it’ll be interesting to see what happens visually in the next film when it comes to Jim-of-all-trades Cameron, but for now Alita’s first foray into film is a fairly decent latest offering from one of Hollywood’s most forward-thinking directors.