When a filmmaker has a movie project he wants to realize, but a variety of issues keep putting actual production of it on hold for upwards of a decade, nobody would probably blame them if they gave up on it. Not James Cameron, though. Ever since he was introduced to a Japanese manga by fellow director Guillermo Del Toro, he has been fascinated with the story to attempt adapting it to live-action. However, technical limitations of the time plus his work on “Avatar” in the 2000s put these plans in the back burner. Only this 2019 did the global movie-going audience finally get to see the long-awaited “Alita: Battle Angel.”
This new 20th Century Fox big-budget movie, a cyberpunk action extravaganza, is based on the manga “Gunm” by Yukito Kishiro, which came out in 1990 and localized as “Battle Angel Alita.” The adventures of an amnesiac cyborg girl that knows anti-robot martial arts in a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk settlement under a tyrannical floating city, so enamored James Cameron that he took elements of that story to create his 2000 TV series “Dark Angel” with Jessica Alba. But he never let his highest ambition for the property – a live-action film – slip away.
When work on “Alita: Battle Angel” finally started in earnest, Cameron found himself too busy with the “Avatar” sequel to sit in the director’s chair. So while relegating himself as co-producer with Jon Landau, the job of making the movie happen fell to Robert Rodriguez, no slouch in intense action pieces himself. The result is a futuristic yet “Mad Max”-like narrative that readers of the original manga claim is a workable condensation of several important storylines into an under-2-hour feature. In a nutshell, “Battle Angel” follows Alita, a female cyborg found dismantled in a scrapyard by a surgeon for cyborgs who repairs and names her, and her adventures in Iron City, a junkyard metropolis serving as factory/farm for the sky-city of Zalem floating above them.
One significant feature of “Alita: Battle Angel” is the choice of the producers in how to render the title heroine. While CGI and props for half-man, half-machine cyborgs in the film’s setting was a given, the decision to render the main character, played by Rosa Salazar, in CGI that is both photo-realistic and not results in a strangely appealing aesthetic. Alita looks fairly “normal” for having robotic limbs and having eyes somewhat large for her face, like a manga/anime girl.
While the CGI work, courtesy of “Lord of the Rings” veteran effects company Weta Digital from New Zealand, does some fine work in creating the appearance of Alita, that would likely fall apart if the actress in the role could not quite live up to the complexity. Thankfully Rosa Salazar delivers a curious performance that melds with the pseudo-realism of her character, at times sounding of childlike innocence one moment, then mature professionalism the next, and somewhere in between too.
With regards to the rest of the cast, Christoph Waltz as Alita’s guardian and parental figure Dr. Dyson Ido is an interesting take considering his original manga version was younger and Japanese (Daisuke Ido). Accusations of whitewashing similar to what happened to Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell” is somewhat alleviated by the reworking of his backstory and relation to the cyborg girl he found in a dump, and he comes across as a great supporting character for Alita for it.
While Dr. Ido tries to keep Alita sheltered from the dangers of post-apocalyptic Iron City, she is inspired to explore her surroundings further by an outside acquaintance, handyman Hugo (Keean Johnson). He introduces her to a popular sport, and shares his dream of moving to Zalem. But trouble breaks out when Alita learns of Ido’s double life as a bounty hunter for cyborg criminals. In the meantime she catches the interest of corrupt business mogul Vector (Mahershala Ali), who through his tech aide Chiren (Jennifer Connely) tries to figure out what secrets lies underneath Alita’s circuitry and instinctual combat mastery.
In between quiet scenes of introspection and discovery, Cameron and Rodriguez put intense action and battle sequences that harken both to “Avatar” and other live-action anime adaptations on both sides of the Pacific. That much is expected given the source material, and only those disinclined towards the action genre will not be entertained by it.
If there is any prominent flaw in the whole package of “Alita: Battle Angel,” it is that it was never going to tell the whole story of the manga, and therefore ends with unfinished plotlines and a blatantly telegraphed sequel hook. Granted, the producers have pretty much expressed their intentions to make more movies with “Alita,” as if to make up for the long time it took to actually make this first one.
More critical viewers may say that Alita’s incredible SFX only compensate for a convoluted plot, but there is enough meat in the story to invest cyberpunk fans now, and condition them for follow-up films in the future. And for what it is worth, the original manga author Yukito Kishiro loves the finished product enough to make some sweet promotional artwork for it.
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