In case there is any doubt, James Cameron makes good movies, if you are thinking of big budget destructa-thons (that you still go to see anyway) that’s Michael Bay. By degrees of contrast Cameron’s megalomaniacal perfectionism is as legendary as Michael Bay’s “Meh, slap some explosions in post, its a living.” approach.
Weirdly enough post Terminator and Titanic and pre Avatar for the last 20 years James Cameron has been planning an adaptation of a manga comic.
Avatar, was merely a prototype, a tech demo, a proof of concept to perfect the technology for the film he was intending to make. A prototype that just happened to make 3 Billion dollars.
This movie that has yet to be made, has already changed the technology, the industry and like it or not bought about the modern resurgence of 3D film-making.
A film that if directly adapted from its source material would be a hyper violent epic Science Fiction mixture of Blade Runner, Terminator and Mad Max but uniquely its own world. That film is Alita: Battle Angel.
James Cameron isn’t your typical Japanophile anime-manga nerd. He doesn’t read manga, but he did read all of the Battle Angel series. If you like awesome Sci Fi comics and haven’t read Battle Angel Alita you should check it out.
It may be surprising Cameron’s interest in Japanese Sci-Fi animation after making so many modern American Cinema Sci-Fi classics as Terminator 1-2, Aliens and the technical achievement if nothing else of the Abyss have influenced many of the manga, creating a perfect symbiotic cycle of inspiration.
Most people got their early dose of Japanese Cyber-Punk anime thanks to Cameron, he played a major role in bringing Matsumoto Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell to western audiences back in 1995.
Ghost in the Shell, ground breaking at the time and is still today a landmark achievement in animations maturation, following in the footsteps of the now legendary epic, Akira.
It was clear the animation, vision and scope of these movies which were primarily made with traditional cell shaded animation and some computer generated elements pushed the boundaries of what was capable at the time.
Cameron took note of the amazing worlds created within these stories, he wanted to capture this in full photorealism with live action however the performance capture technology for the story he wanted to tell wasn’t yet perfected.
The story of Alita (or Gally as she is known in the Japanese version) is perfect in its simplicity.
In a town known as The Scrapyard beneath a giant floating city, a scientist with a past, Doc Ido finds the remains of a cyborg girl that he repairs, bringing her back to life.
Alita has no memory, as it happens Doc Ido also works a night job as a bounty hunter. Naturally Alita wants to join him, which he’s reluctant about but figures she’s safer learning how to do the job with him. It turns out she has the memories of a deadly long lost Martian martial art inside her.
Together they tear through the Scrapyard’s cybernetic post apocalyptic psychotics like kittens through tissue paper.
Alita falls in love with a boy who is tied into some underhanded schemes who is ultimately dragged down by them. To escape her sorrow she throws herself into the Scrapyards version of MMA mixed with roller derby called Motorball and lives only for the rush of battle. While Doc Ido tries to save her from her self destructive path and give her something to live for.
This is all in the first 4 volumes of the manga, I wont spoil the rest of the story but she gets to meet the inhabitants of the floating city, be forced into being their assassin and ultimately conquer her Karma.
It’s a story of love, loss, betrayal and defining who you are and your purpose. What if a gun dreamt it was a person?
It impacted Cameron deeply enough, he keeps coming back to the project. Cameron said the following about it;
“The themes of trans-human evolution in Battle Angel have haunted me for years.”
Visually Yukito Kishiro’s manga has an insane level of detail and the design ethic is as fresh as it was 20 years ago. Due to health reasons he prematurely concluded the story and then continued it in the series Last Order.
He puts so much effort and detail into each panel it boggles the mind
Kishiro’s work is overflowing with pop culture influence in its artworks ironically including James Cameron’s movies. Its often referencing obscure technology, philosophy and design elements that mirror the Scrapyard the story grows from.
There’s bounty hunting, cyborgs performing martial arts (guns are outlawed within the scrapyard), the lethal cyborg formula 1 sport of Motorball. There is plenty to keep your pulse rate up and your eyes happy, but conversely enough of an interesting setting to not suffer from Bay’s explosion fatigue.
If handled right Battle Angel could really put the Punk back in Cyber, channeling that brash energy to the screen is exactly what a combination of Bladerunner 2049 and Mad Max Fury Road would look like. Kishiro’s manga artwork has a particular hyper kinetic style to it that could really set it apart from the faithful yet languid Ghost in the Shell live action movie that kind of missed the point of the Anime.
There are action set-pieces that melt your face off even in the panels of the manga.
Long before the terms of decompressed storytelling or wide-screen comics were a twinkle in Morrison and Ellis’s eyes Kishiro was doing it for real.
Kishiro’s use of form and motion brings the kinetics of the action panels to life. They almost fly off the page at you like they are in 3d.
Incidentally, for better or worse, the huge push in 3d film making within the industry has been precipitated by Cameron’s drive getting the performance capture technology right to make this movie must have been inspired in part by the action leaping from the frames of the comic.
When reading the Motorball sequences in book 3 of Battle Angel, my heart starts pounding, I start burning through the frames quicker and I’m drawn into the what’s unfolding like a nightmare version of that Aha video.
“It would have to be pried out of my cold dead fingers…
…But on the other hand, I don’t want to take it to my grave either. [We want to see it] at some point, yeah.”
James Cameron has had to pass the directing of Alita: Battle Angel to Robert (Sin City, Dusk Til Dawn, Grind House) Rodriguez to see it made. Its my strong hope it’s not overly diluted in its transition from manga to film, the story goes some very graphic and twisted places and as much of this as the rating allows should be left in, it’s a dystopian as hell setting, it’s necessary to the story.
Just go back to Mad Max 3 and WaterWorld if you need a reminder that family friendly post apocalyptic movies are not a good mix.
I do understand however to reach a wider level of appeal it will need to lose some of the more stomach turning aspects. Maybe it will get round this with predominantly cyborg vs cyborg action, much in the way Transformers had robots ripping each-other to bits without the ratings boards going nuts.
It is reassuring Cameron’s vision for the movie follows the first several books of Battle Angel as closely enough as an adaptation can while making a good movie:
“What I’m going to do is take the spine story and use elements from the first four books. So, the Motorball from books three and four, and parts of the story of one and two will all be in the movie “
It also tracks alongside Cameron’s history with presenting strong female characters as leads, Alita would be without a doubt the toughest and most ruthless he has brought to screen.
Cameron has by his own admission become sidetracked with Avatar 2 and 3, primarily due to his interest as an environmentalist and the impact he can have with making those films. Fair enough, if those movies make a difference to peoples outlook on the environment that can only be a good thing.
Cameron then handed Robert Rodriguez 160 page script and a massive archive of world notes to make sure he really understood the world he wanted to bring to adapt to the screen.
The first trailer was divisive, the supersizing of Rosa Salazar’s eyes to make her look like Alita from the manga threatened to sink it to into the uncanny valley before it even got started.
Trailer 2 however showed more of the world and more importantly the action and either they toned down the bug eyes or I’m getting used to it. After watching a few interviews with Cameron, Rodriguez and Salazar they all really get the characters, the world and the source material.
Will it be a good movie adaptation however? After Ghost in the Shell it’s hard to say, that had all the visual style and was lifted almost frame by frame from the Anime but still felt lacking and failed to grasp the concepts the original conveyed effortlessly.
After reading this comic for 25+ years I really hope they do it well enough to get some sequels in because there is so much to cover, hell if they can keep cranking out Transformers movies and making money I hope Battle Angel gets a shot.
Alita: Battle Angel Opens in the US 21 December