Real and full spoilers ahead. No CGI here.
I always have preconceptions about movies I’m about to watch, but this one caught me a little by surprise. I had seen the trailer, I had heard it was based on a manga, and I had thought about checking it out at some time. Then time passed and I didn’t hear a peep about this movie until screening time. As it happens, there’s a lot to write about this project and as much as can be said about the advances of CGI technology and motion capture, the important question is the same: does it deliver?
Alita: Battle Angel is directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau. The poster wants to you to remember two different names: Titanic and Avatar. You don’t need to do that, the movie does not need them either. Instead, I found myself reminiscing more about Astro Boy (2009). The character and the storyline for the most part come from Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm from 1990, translated as Battle Angel Alita for American audiences. An anime soon followed in 1993. That being said, I’m solely focusing my review on the movie as a finished product, so this has no bearing on the manga.
To the filmmakers’ credit, the movie does use the same storyline and takes a lot of cues from its manga source. Dr. Dyson Ido (Cristoph Waltz went from playing a Nazi once to taking on the Ben Kenobi role in a ton of films) discovers a cyborg’s (I will come back to this word) head and torso on the scrapyard where all the garbage from the last of sky cities, Typhares, ends. Taking it back to his clinic in Iron City, he revives her and names her Alita. Having no memory of who she is, Alita tries to discover her place in the world making friends, enemies and discovering she has a talent for fighting. Anytime she does, she remembers fragments of her old life and discovers something new about herself.
Alita is played by Rosa Salazar. Her entire performance is motion-captured and her facial expressions were used to create the CGI character. Alita is unequivocally an anime character. She has large eyes and skinny frame. Let’s discuss the elephant in the room, then. Why not just use the actual actress Rosa Salazar? Well, I can’t help that think that using CGI was the starting point of producing this feature film. I think this is definitely how James Cameron started thinking about the film. This started as a CGI project the same day it started as a manga adaptation. I’m not quite sure why he didn’t take in directorial duties, but I also know why Robert Rodriguez was brought in. Rodriguez may have started in independent films but he’s also done a lot of digitally-heavy projects.
Cameron does pull double-duty having also written the screenplay along Laeta Kalogridis. He’s even been vocal about how he wanted to focus on the first volumes of the manga, also mentioning he wanted to showcase the sport of Motorball. This is something that a lot of fantasy and sci-fi stories do with coming-of-age storylines. Harry Potter did it with Quidditch and Episode One did it with Pod Racing. You bring in a sport, you have a crowd already cheering for it and a cheeky announcer, you make fans out of your audience almost on the fly. A sport in a movie is something you immediately recognize even when it’s made up. There’s a crowd cheering, they seem to be having fun. There’s T-shirts, colours, noise and crazy fans. Don’t you want to be part of this too?
This might sound like I’m being overtly critical of Cameron and Rodriguez, and I am – but it’s with more than little bit of admiration. They have gone through the entire modern filmmaker’s toolbox throughout this film. Slow-motion to enhance fighting, drop the bass when you want the audience to know the gravity of the situation, make Alita seem small when confronted by her enemies, give her the high ground when she has the moral superiority of doubting someone, make sure that she has her moments with Ido to establish father-daughter roles, keep them small or insert a joke so you don’t lose the audience… Every trick in the book is here. Everything. The movie is going all in.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just every element exposed and playing out really loud. There’s a scene where Alita meets and obviously falls over heels for Hugo (Keean Johnson). Hugo is the roguish love interest. It’s hard to believe he jacks up parts from cyborgs (I will address this word, I promise!) for the local gangster, Vector (Ali Mahershala, playing the villain role again). It’s even harder to believe he falls so in love with Alita that he decides to change his life like that. His character’s story arc has so little nuance that I found Alita’s performance more believable than his. To top it off, his arc ends awkwardly – twice. Both endings are over the top and somehow underwhelming. Sorry to say, but I think the movie would’ve been fine with a little less Hugo.
The narrative is where the film lacks a little punch. It has some moments in which the flow feels forced rather than natural. The story is fine, it has been done before, it has been done better and I can honestly say it has been done a lot worse as well. Giving the new character both the visual novelty and a crutch works. Add to that the basic amnesia plot device and you have a way to introduce the world to your audience. You just have to make sure you’re ready with something else when that thread runs thin. Alita at some point becomes a hunter-warrior and for some reason tries to rouse the other hunters with a speech which fails because: 1) She has zero connection with them, and, 2) We, the audience, have zero connection with them which is worse. It feels like something that was going to be established earlier in the movie got cut out of the script.
Before you think that I’m only picking it apart, let me state this little gem: I had an awesome time watching this. I say this without sarcasm. Rodriguez (and I’m guessing it’s him, because I don’t think it’s Cameron) has managed to put a lot of heart in the film. Yes, it has its narrative mishaps. Yes, the writing is sometimes a little off, but then again it’s a CGI-human composite, so it does really well against more recent films. The action scenes, CGI and all, are exciting. You do end up caring about Alita, and I think a lot of it is the vocal and physical performance captured from Rosa Salazar. At least her voice does add human character to her character. It does help that the CGI has come a long way since Avatar, but remember that all CGI movies are doomed to become dated for the same reason. CGI will unavoidably improve tenfold in a very short time.
I did like the story, even if the movie skips or fabricates beats once in a while. The movie does want to make sure you get everything. There’s an early scene where Alita suspects Ido is up to something. We see her following him into the night. While she doubts him, you see her walking the roofs. She’s literally standing above him when her suspicions are at their peak, she then drops at his level when she’s challenging him and she cowers in fear as she discovers the truth and how she’s exposed him to danger instead. On another scene, Alita literally takes her heart out and offers it to Hugo. Okey, movie, we get it. But at the same time, it’s almost a subversion. Alita has the advantage of being a character that might not get nuance as much as humans do.
So let’s discuss the terminology here… The movie calls Alita a cyborg. Actually, we see plenty of cyborgs in the film, but Alita is not really one of them, isn’t she? This is something that never gets cleared up, but is she a complete robot or is the idea that a robot with a brain as complicated as hers becomes so close to human thought/emotions to be considered partly human/alive? Alita’s emotions are never challenged and never doubted by those who interact with her. We never get the human-or-machine dilemma tackled seriously. She starts as a newcomer but she is accepted and never regarded as an outsider. Adversity comes to her from an unknown enemy.
But Alita, established already as our eyes to the world and becoming adorable for having a crush, soon demonstrates she’s a fighting machine. This is incredibly convenient because her adversaries are mostly cyborgs as well. Zapan (Ed Skrein) is another hunter-warrior that picks a beef with her the moment he meets her. Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) is a huge cyborg tasked with explicitly hunting her down by Vector (Ali Maharshala). I felt that Ali Maharshala was extremely underused. He gets a small moment in which he talks to Hugo and explains how much of a small fry he would be in Typhares, while he utters the famous line from John Milton’s Paradise Lost about ruling in Hell. I couldn’t help but agree.
Honestly, I loved the Iron City concept. Even the small vehicles make sense, given the size of the streets. As a matter of fact, and once again I credit Rodriguez for this, I love the colours, clothing and weathered look. It’s a vibrant, human, city. Ido’s clinic signage is written in both English and Spanish because of course it is. Everything is dusty and aged and recycled because the city has been born out of strife. Things that don’t fit like the four-legged centurions are obviously funded by someone from outside. This ends up being the hidden adversary known only as Nova. There’s a snippet of a reveal at the end but he doesn’t really get to flex his muscles yet. That’s left for a potential sequel.
Recommended if you want to have a good time watching a movie. Get your friends, get the popcorn, but I might want to add leave the younger kiddies at home. The fighting is pretty visceral and violent with a lot of body amputations. Some will try to be funny, but there’s still some really graphic loss of limbs and decapitations that reminded me that this is still Rodriguez at the helm. Still, it does feel he’s at home even with Cameron peeking over his shoulder. In the end, you do need suspension of disbelief and the movie is really trying to entertain its audience. It’s hard not to comply.
That will do for now.