Alita: Battle Angel is a passion project 20 years in the making from James (The Terminator, Aliens) Cameron.
It turns out all this time James Cameron has been a secret Weaboo and has wanted to bring the world of Battle Angel off the pages of the long running manga to film for quite some time. Avatar was a tech demo for him to fine tune the technology he wanted to use for this film, it just turned out Avatar made a shit ton of money and suddenly bogged down in another 10 years of proposed sequels and there weren’t enough hours in the day to do both.
He passed the torch to his long time friend Robert (Sin City, Planet Terror, Machete Kills) Rodriguez and took over the back seat role of producer and writer.
As a fan of the manga since 1995, I was more invested than the casual viewer to see if the vision of the manga via James Cameron then Robert Rodriguez lived up to the source material.
Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner, Bird Box) does the facial performance capture and motion capture for the all CGI title character Alita, for a character that people were worried would fall down the uncanny valley and hit every rock. Thankfully this is some of the best performance capture since Andy Serkis’s Gollum. She is real and believable in every scene.
Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained ) as Dyson Ido a Geppeto like doctor to the cyborg inhabitants of Iron City. He brings a lot of warmth to the film as Alita’s father surrogate.
Keenan Johnson is Hugo, Alita’s love interest and one of the weak links in the film. He plays the bad boy with a good heart that needs saving. The character from the manga was also not really a character you ended up sympathizing with and seemed a bit flat, so the fault lies with the source material more than the actor on this one.
Mahershala Ali is perfectly cast as Vector the businessman gangster who would rather reign in hell rather than serving in heaven in the violent Iron City below the floating city of Zalem.
Jennifer Connelly as Chiren Doc Ido’s ex-wife is a little underutilized and comes off a bit one note. Jennifer is a great actor and here’s obviously a lot going on under the surface with her character but you never really see it play out.
Ed Skrein (Deadpool, Game of Thrones) is Zapan, a vain and arrogant Hunter Warrior Bounty hunter and secondary antagonist to Alita.
Jackie Earle Haley ( Watchmen ) as Grewishka the hulking cyborg psychopath.
Set in the 26th century 300 years after a cataclysmic war between earth and Mars, the remains of humanity have taken refuge underneath the suspended city of Zalem in the hive of scum and villainy, Iron City. Cyborg technology is commonplace, violent crime is rife and the only escapism to be had is the brutal sport of MotorBall . Cybernetic Doctor Dyson Ido finds the ruined body of Alita, a full cyborg with her brain being the only trace of her humanity and rebuilds her.
She has no memory of who she was prior and discovers she has the combat abilities of a skilled warrior and begins her life as new despite the constant dangers she faces from the unseen enemies deciding her fate.
Alita: Battle Angel packs the first 4 books of the manga comic into its 2 hr 20 minute runtime, so there is a lot to cover. It is all important set up for whats to come later in the story if sequels are made. But like all origin stories you have to get through it before you get to the main course.
For such a CGI heavy movie the issues with the performance capture that stuck out for me were more with the dialogue sounding like it was recorded in another environment to the performance than the CGI looking unbelievable.
There is a lot of melodrama and it is a love story that’s not going to be for everyone but when you view it through the lens of manga and anime the cheesiness at least has some context to it. Some of the lines just don’t work in a live action context and could have used further adaptation, James Cameron adapted the screenplay and it’s not like Avatar and Titanic didn’t share some of the same issues.
Jenifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali are a bit under utilised, they are both great actors but seem to be only superficially used although their backstories and motivations are hinted at a lot more could have been done in their performances to humanize them. Its not a good look when the CGI character has more depth than the live action cast.
Hugo is just annoying as fuck, not entirely the actors fault as he was also the same in the Manga, but this is one of the times where a bit of a diversion from the source material would have helped.
The violence which is a big part of the manga is dialed back to a PG-13 so it is more suggestive than explicit, so it does feel overly restrained at times. I would like to see the R rated cut that I’m sure Rodriguez has saved on his editing software somewhere.
It also skips over a whole bunch of the manga very quickly as a sequel-bait towards the end. I hope like hell it makes enough box office for a sequel once it opens in Japan and China, because where the Manga goes from there is far more interesting than the setup.
The Good Stuff
Alita’s CGI and performance capture is spectacular, the team at Wetta Digital have managed to achieve one of the best CGI characters since Gollum. There is depth and nuance to the performance capture that at times lands a bunch of different complex emotions.
For a lot of people the extreme CGI bug eyes were what unnerved people in the early trailers, however they actually fixed this problem by making Alita’s irises even larger! After the first couple minutes you just accept Alita as another member of the cast, it’s not always seamless but it certainly isn’t jarring seeing her next to live action actors.
The pacing is amazing, Alita does not feel its run-time whatsoever, when the Motor-Ball sequences kick in it ratchets up the action and you really just want to see more of everything.
Although there are CGI characters so much of the sets and props of Iron City are all practical effects instead of actors trying their hardest to imagine what they are looking at next to a green-screen and it shows.
When the action scenes get going they are well directed and have that Anime speed and timing that very few if any live action adaptations have managed to capture to date.
It was always going to be a bit of a stretch to try adapt the opening chapters of the manga into a movie length but somehow they have managed to produce the best live action adaptation of a manga to date.
I can recommend this film as worth seeing and one that you could take your kids or a date to and still enjoy yourself.
Alita: Battle Angel is a triumph of state of the art film-making, Rodriguez under the mentor-ship of Cameron has reached a new level in his film-making career in technique and technology.
It’s not perfect by any stretch but it gets far more right than many others that have tried but you really have to see this film in action to appreciate it.
You’ll like it if you enjoy:
Sci-Fi and Cyberpunk worlds.
Anime and Manga.
The films of James Cameron.
Skip it if you:
Don’t care for a love story getting in the way of the action.
Aren’t a fan of CGI heavy movies no matter how well blended.
Expect the violence to equal the manga.
In cinemas now