Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Based on the manga series “Gunnm” by: Yukito Kishiro
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley
Running Time: 122 min
BBFC Certificate: 12A
Western studios have been targeting big budget adaptations of popular anime and manga franchises for years. Whether it be the perpetually in development hell Akira or 2017’s poorly received Ghost In The Shell, there is certainly an appetite to bring Japanese comics and cartoons to life. One long gestating project that finally saw a release in 2019 was James Cameron’s Alita: Battle Angel, a film in development since the early 2000’s. With Cameron seemingly stuck making Avatar sequels until the end of time, the director baton was passed to Robert Rodriguez to finally bring Yukito Kishiro’s classic manga Gunnm to vivid life.
Set in a future ravaged by war, the film tells the story of Alita, a cyborg amnesiac who’s torso is found on a scrapheap by Dr Dyson Ito (Waltz), a cyberneticist who rebuilds and effectively adopts her. Trying to find and understand her place in a hostile world of bounty hunters, social segregation and extreme sports, Alita gradually begins to learn the truth about her origins and how she can help shape the future for humans and cyborgs alike.
It would be very easy to dismiss Alita as another PG-13 rated popcorn action flick, but that would be forgetting the pedigree that the film has behind it. Despite Rodriguez directing, this is very much a James Cameron project, and that shows through in the script with its themes of artificial life and social boundaries. It’s easy to see why Cameron was initially drawn to Kishiro’s work; this is pulp sci-fi with depth. Alita herself is a refreshing heroine, bustling with naive positivity in the face of a world full of adversity and wonderfully brought to live via motion capture by Rosa Salazar. Visually the character is a strange, uncanny valley realisation of a typical manga heroine, all big eyes and girl-like proportions, but the level of expression that the motion capture allows means that, on screen, we get a performance rather than a cartoon. Alita spends most of her screen time interacting with Ito and Keean Johnson’s Hugo, so that believability is essential and, after a few minutes, it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at pixels and not an actor. But that’s all testament to the way in which Alita the film makes use of technology.
It’s remarkable how far we’ve come in the 10 years since Avatar’s release and the collaborative effort of Cameron, Rodriguez and the team at Weta Digital creates here a fantastical world that is both alien yet believable and tangible. Shooting on actual sets and locations goes a big way to helping this as it largely grounds the camera, not disorienting the viewer with repeat flashy shots and zooms through its futuristic skyline. When the film does pull out something spectacular it’s always for a moment that’s earned, whether it be establishing a sense of scale in the city or framing the action to more closely mimic the comics it’s adapting. The blend of live action and CG is also mostly flawless, with actors often augmented by digital cybernetic parts. Ed Skrein’s bounty hunter Zapan is a particularly stunning creation, a fully CG body full of intricate components with Skrein’s real head slapped on top, it’s almost impossible to see the joins, something that again sells the world.
This is all certainly raised up a notch with a flawless presentation on the UHD Blu-Ray. The package itself is fairly generous, including a 3D Blu-Ray disc alongside the standard HD Blu-Ray and UHD discs, but the 4K HDR version is the star of the show here. Details pop and colours are crisp, with the dusty daytime scenes of Iron City contrasting wonderfully with the bright neons at night and during the visually stunning MotorBall scenes. It’s impressive stuff and elevates the images photorealistic comic book style, truly complementing the work of the filmmakers.
Where Alita begins to fall down, however, is in the script. The original Gunnm series is comprised of 9 graphic novels, and Cameron’s script (edited down by Rodriguez) adapts elements from the first four of these. That gives the story a lot of ground to cover, from Alita’s “birth” to her discovering the world she lives in, and through to her time with the bounty hunters and competing in the sport, MotorBall. In a film that’s just over 2 hours in length (edited down from an original 180 odd page script) you’d expect some aspects of this story to suffer. Indeed, the narrative is very disjointed in places, with Alita’s amnesia leading to some big blobs of exposition from secondary characters to fill in the back story and vague flashbacks hinting at the life the warrior cyborg used to lead. The bounty hunter plotline hits a high point but fizzles out in favour of the emerging MotorBall story, sadly leaving a promising character left at the wayside literally moments after he’s introduced, and the villains played by Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly being reduced to slightly one note baddies with hints of depth.
Alita also does the modern movie sin of assuming a franchise. Similar to Mortal Engines and the recent Mummy reboot, the story spends a lot of time building elements that are never properly delivered on in favour of being “mysterious” and “foreshadowing” before, well, stopping. The film never really has a sense of an ending – sure there’s a climactic showdown but the story ultimately ends on a cliffhanger, even going so far as to introduce a big name star as a major character in the final scene before the credits roll, all on the assumption that we’ll get a sequel that will continue things. Sure, The Matrix pulled this off well in 1999, but that had a complete story that never really felt like it needed finishing as such, but if Alita’s new owners at Disney (thanks, Fox merger!) decide not to push ahead with a sequel, this film will simply continue to feel incomplete.
Still, negatives aside, Alita: Battle Angel is a step up from most pulpy blockbuster material. It’s a wonderfully realised sci-fi actioner that delivers incredible spectacle while hewing remarkably close to its source material. If it spawns a franchise then it could go down as a well remembered classic, but it’s certainly well worth your attention on its own.
- Alita’s World – get a deeper look into the world of Alita: Battle Angel with these dynamic motion comics.
- The Fall – a look back at the terrible war that almost destroyed two planets and set the stage for the cyborg warrior Alita’s return 300 years later.
- Iron City – Hugo gives a guided tour of the Iron City he knows, showing off its dark corners and broken-down neighborhoods.
- What it Means to be a Cyborg – hunter-warrior Zapan tracks his mark across Iron City while musing about what it means to be a cyborg.
- Rules of the Game – A high-octane “crash course” in Motorball, introducing the rules, game-play, and the top-ranked players and their arsenal of weapons.
- From Manga to Screen – a behind-the-scenes look into the origins of Yukito Kishiro’s beloved manga, “Gunnm,” and the long road to bring it to life on the big screen.
- Evolution of Alita – how Alita was brought to life, from the casting of Rosa Salazar, to performance capture, and final VFX by WETA Digital.
- Motorball – go inside Iron City’s favorite pastime, from the origins and evolution of the sport, to rules on how the game is played.
- James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez and Cast Q&A moderated by Jon Landau.
- Robert Rodriguez’s 10 Minute Cooking School: Chocolate – a cooking lesson on how to make delicious chocolate like that seen in the movie.
- 2005 Art Compilation (2019) – James Cameron’s original compilation of concept art for the then-titled “Battle Angel: Alita,” presented with new voiceover and music.
- Scene Deconstruction – view three different stages of the production – the original live action performance capture, the animation stage, and the final Weta VFX from four different scenes
- I Don’t Even Know My Own Name
- Just an Insignificant Girl
- I’m a Warrior Aren’t I?
- Kansas Bar
While the bonus features are definitely of the flashy, big studio variety, they are all fairly informative, running the gamut from behind the scenes documentaries to short films that help flesh out the world of Alita. What immediately jumps out is the genuine enthusiasm and love for the source material from all involved, from set visits by creator Yukito Kishiro, to the absolute joy that is Rosa Salazar and her endless determination to do right by the character. Seeing the performance capture process is also breathtaking, as is the revelation of just how much of the film was shot on practical soundstages. There’s also a 10 minute (well, 5 minutes in actuality) cooking school segment where Robert Rodriguez shows how he made the chocolate that features in the film which looks absolutely delicious!