ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenwriters: James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro.
Jackie Earle Haley
Runtime: 122 mins.
Australian release date: 14 February 2019
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 8 February 2019.
You could say that Alita: Battle Angel has many parents: primarily, Yukito Kishiro, author of the ‘90s Japanese manga series on which it is based, then Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who first thought the series would make a great film and took the idea to James Cameron, who announced in 2003 that he would direct the movie (this was before Avatar) and who subsequently employed Shutter Island scriptwriter Laeta Kalogridis to knock his massive draft into shape, before finally realising that, with the vast work of the Avatar sequels in front of him, he would have to pass the reins to Robert Rodriguez, who Cameron knew would be respectful of the material. Phew! Alita has had a long gestation but then, she’s a cyborg, not a human, so 20 odd years is nothing to her.
Beginning in 2563, 300 years after ‘The Fall’ (watch for the 26th Century Fox logo - LOL), Alita: Battle Angel is set in Iron City, a rubbish-bin kind of metropolis on Earth that huddles under the shadow of the floating world of Zalem. Up there, it’s heaven… supposedly. Down here, hell… though there is chocolate. In Iron City, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) scrummages through the detritus expelled from Zalem, looking for ‘tech’, the sort of advanced technology that can no longer be made on Earth, that knowledge having been lost during the war with URM (the United Republic of Mars) that led to ‘The Fall’. In the discards he finds a disembodied head and torso, a remnant of a still functioning cyborg, that he names Alita (Rosa Salazar) after his deceased daughter and to whom he conjoins a mechanical body that he’d created for her. She has no memory of her past, however, so when she meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a human, he shows her around Iron City and introduces her to Motorball, a deadly version of roller derby played by cyborgs. The ultimate victor wins the opportunity to go to Zalem. Alita is fascinated but needs to gain ‘credits’ before she can enter the games, so she signs up to become a Hunter-Warrior, bounty hunters who are paid for killing transgressors. Her subsequent exploits lead her to Vector (Mahershala Ali), the dastardly entrepreneur behind Motorball, and Dr. Ido’s wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s in cahoots with him. But someone else is lurking behind Vector; it seems everyone in Iron City has a secret, even Hugo, who Alita has fallen for, and Alita herself, whose secrets may not be of her own making but whose memory is starting to return.
A clever combination of cutting-edge performance-capture technology, CGI, VFX and 3D filmmaking, together with an effective performance from Salazar in the lead role, make Alita: Battle Angel stand out from the pack of recent manga derivative titles (I’m looking at you Ghost In The Shell). Salazar had to have her face covered in dots and wear a two-camera facial rig to capture the nuances of her emotions and it worked a treat. Some viewers have had trouble relating to Alita’s larger-than-life-sized eyes but the close-up nature of this motion-capture technique makes her believable, at least to this reviewer. Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based FX company Weta Digital are leaders in this field and Cameron has stated that, “Weta still does the best facial animation of anybody out there - the most human, the most alive, the most emotional. So many other houses are trying to catch up, but Weta remains in front. I knew they had to do Alita, because you have to believe in her even in the tightest close-ups.” Add to this the impressive production design of Iron City and you have a unique look to the film. Concept design co-supervisor Dylan Cole explained that, “It was important to us that Iron City have a futuristic culture unlike any you’ve seen before. We’ve seen so much rain-slicked, neon-lit sci-fi and the fact is, you can't top Blade Runner in that regard. So we wanted a completely different kind of tone. We’ve created a dusty, sundrenched look for Iron City that suggests that life goes on in this place despite the oppression people are living under.”
In short, Alita: Battle Angel is a film on an epic scale. Yes, the story gets bogged down in parts but there are enough visual pleasures on screen to keep your interest even at these times. It’s definitely a set-up for sequelisation and you’re left in no doubt at the film’s end that we haven’t seen the last of Alita. Indeed, Cameron and Rodriguez recently announced that they already have plans for Alita: Battle Angel 2.