So apparently James Cameron has dreamed of making this movie, an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro‘s “Battle Angel Alita” manga, for over 20 years! It was before he made Titanic in 1997 and Avatar in 2009, and it’s his commitments to the latter that made him relinquish his directing duties to Robert Rodriguez. I have to admit though that my initial reaction to the first trailer was that the huge, Manga-inspired eyes are creepy looking. I read some Manga as a kid (specifically Candy Candy) but in the printed comics, of course they never bothered me, that’s how all Mangas are drawn. But cinematically, they can be quite eerie.
Now, I decided to see the movie anyway, two weeks before it’s open to the public in Feb 14. As it turns out, the eyes didn’t really bother me once the movie starts. It actually didn’t have the ‘cold, dead eyes’ effect like in Polar Express. Of course they can still be a bit disturbing at times, but for a character made up of cyborg parts, she’s pretty lifelike.
There are plenty to like about Alita. In fact, I immediately sympathize with this cyborg creature trying to discover her identity. It’s an action-packed coming-of-age story of a young girl who’s trying to piece together the mystery of who she is. Set in the 26th century, 300 years after ‘the fall’ where ‘the haves’ live in a floating city called Tiphares and the rest down below in Iron City. The story starts when a man found a still ‘living’ severed head in a junkyard, where the Tiphares dumps its trash. I thought Christoph Waltz as her father figure Dr. Dyson Ido is inspired choice, and at first you don’t know if he’s good or bad, which the Austrian actor portrayed really well.
The father/daughter relationship between him and Alita is actually one of my fave parts of the film, and the way Dr. Ido tried to protect her from the new world she’s thrusted into is endearing. It’s once Alita (Rosa Salazar, terrific in her first performance-capture role) discovered rollerball-style game (and also ‘puberty’ it seems) thanks to a boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) that the action switches into high gear.
Before long, we, along with Dr. Ido and Alita herself, discovers who she really is. It’s not a spoiler as it says right there on the title, she’s a formidable killing machine, basically an ‘angel of death’ despite her seemingly innocent appearance. She’s able to fight a bunch of vicious Hunter-Warriors, sometimes all at once, even a huge one that looks like what Fantastic Four’s The Thing mixed with a Transformer. Knowing that she’s virtually indestructible kind of lessen any sense of suspense, and the more bombastic the fighting scene the less impactful it becomes. The first time we see the gladiatorial game of Motorball in this huge arena filled with cheering crowd was cool, but the second one just feels indulgent in the parts of the filmmakers. Yes, the action and special effects are cool, but it gets tiresome real fast too. In fact, at times it reminds me of all the loud metal clanging of Transformers, which is NEVER a good thing.
I’m not that familiar with Robert Rodriguez’s work, having only seen Desperado and Sin City. I think this movie is as much a James Cameron movie as a Robert Rodriguez one. We’re treated to a video interview with the filmmakers and some of the cast after the movie and it’s clear that Cameron was Rodriguez’s mentor throughout and Rodriguez helped fulfill Cameron’s vision. As we all know, Cameron is a perfectionist, so I doubt there’s really much ‘creative liberties’ the ‘chosen director’ would have if it clashes with Cameron’s vision.
In any case, it’s no surprise that Cameron, who co-wrote the script with Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon), loves cross-species, star-crossed romances. I kind of roll my eyes every time I see Alita gets all giddy over Hugo, even going so far as giving him his heart, literally! Most of the supposedly-romantic scenes end up being unintentionally hilarious. There are moments that remind me of Titanic, perhaps intentionally so? What’s genuinely funny are the scenes involving Hunter Warrior Zapan (Ed Skrein), a cyborg obsessed with his pretty face, the only ‘fleshed out’ part of his cybernetic being. The tall, lanky British actor relish on his character’s narcissistic vanity. It made me think that he might have imbued a much-needed dose of humor had he been cast in Altered Carbon instead of Joel Kinnaman!
The actual villain of the movie is never actually seen (played by a famous actor we haven’t seen in a while). We only know it lives in Tiphares and could actually ‘possesses’ other beings to communicate with people down below. I feel like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are pretty wasted here as their characters are pretty thinly-written. As the protagonist, Alita’s backstory itself isn’t as deeply compelling it could’ve been. It’s a missed opportunity really, as her relationship with Dr. Ido and Connelly’s character Chiren could’ve been explored more. It’s clear the filmmakers focused heavily in the spectacle of it all. After all these years, the technology (thanks to Weta Digital) finally caught up with Cameron’s vision of Alita, at least the way he envisioned to do Kishiro’s world justice. Yet all that money spent (about $200 mil) is kind of hollow when it’s just another ‘style over substance.’ I think science-fiction is the perfect genre for a ‘what does it mean to be human’ commentary, when humans would co-exist together with robots in the future. But unlike sci-fi classics like Blade Runner or Terminator, Alita doesn’t really add anything new to that concept.
Visually speaking, it also didn’t really inspire that sense of wonder the way I did with Cameron’s previous creation Avatar. I recently rewatched that movie and I still had that ‘awe-struck’ reaction when we first saw Pandora in 2009. The floating mountains and that mountain banshee flight sequence still made me go ‘whoa,’ which I never felt while watching Alita. I’m not sure of its replay-ability value as right now, I don’t know if I’m eager to see this movie again nor do I care to see more of Alita’s adventures.
As I never read the Manga books, I’m curious to see the reception from their fans, especially in its native Japan. As a Southeast-Asian blogger, I’m not bothered that they hired a Latina actress to portray Alita as Kishiro supposedly didn’t even set the world of Iron City in Asia, it’s just supposed to be a melting pot type of futuristic dystopian city. I think the cast is quite diverse and the actors get to speak with whatever they’re most comfortable with (Waltz with his Austrian accent, Skrein with his Northern London brogue, etc.) I do think it’s funny that Alita made a comment about the many languages spoken in the city when I never heard of any other language being English being spoken in the movie [shrug].
Should you go see it? Well, if you like a sci-fi action adventure, I’d say it’s well worth seeing on the big screen. I don’t normally like watching 3D movies with those pesky glasses, but the effects and visuals look cool in IMAX 3D as the movie was optimized for such technology. I skipped Ghost in The Shell (just didn’t appeal to me at all) and I think Jupiter Ascending is absolutely rubbish, but this one has enough going for it for me to recommend. Just don’t expect a sci-fi classic or even something emotionally gratifying, just enjoy the ride for the high-octane action adventure that it is.
What do you think of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL? Are you excited to see it?