Alita: Battle Angel
James Cameron’s passion project Alita: Battle Angel, in gestation for 20 years, has now been handed over to the filmmaker’s old pal Robert Rodriguez. After seeing the movie, it’s totally believable that its development history stretches back a few decades: the tech is state-of-the-art but the narrative elements are stale.
Adapted from cyberpunk manga Gunnm, the feature takes place in a 26th-century post-apocalyptic ghetto overlooked by a splendid floating city (think Elysium) and populated by a co-existence of humans and androids. Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the core of a young girl (Rosa Salazar) in a scrapyard and mechanically breathes new life into her. This is Alita; she can’t remember her past but gradually pieces together memories of her extraordinary history.
In this world, everything is spoken on the nose. Ideas and intentions are clearly expressed but the contexts and finer details are kept vague. We learn that Alita is pitted against some evildoers led by the big, bad Vector (Mahershala Ali), under the command of the bigger bad Nova, and she’s tailed by merciless cyborgs including Zapan (Ed Skrein) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), but these characters’ backstories are all frustratingly unexplored. The top-drawer acting talent is short-changed by a lacklustre screenplay.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to connect with the titular character when the whats and whys of her mission largely remain a puzzle. A sequel-baiting finale tries to expound on the story’s significance to little avail. Cameron expects part two (it’s a good thing Rodriguez loves sequels) and a second instalment is very likely considering the existence of four more Avatar follow-ups. Optimism or delusions of grandeur? You decide.
The famously economically efficient director fully utilises his budget. Strong storytelling may be absent in this feature but, indisputably, it’s visually perfect: flawless facial animation, outstanding motion capture, awe-inspiring production design and breathtaking action sequences with crisp choreography. Shooting in 3D, cinematographer Bill Pope creates staggering depth in every frame. Statistics show 3D revenue is declining; in a just world, 2019 will see an uptick primarily due to this incredibly immersive experience.
In the spirit of these filmmakers reimagining classic material for a contemporary audience, there’s a quote from Roger Ebert’s review of The Untouchables which, with a bit of tweaking, resonates with Rodriguez’s adaptation: Alita: Battle Angel has great photography, great lighting, great CGI, great action, great scenic design and a 3D presentation that must be seen on the biggest screen possible. But it does not have great dialogue, great characters or a great story.
Alita: Battle Angel is released nationwide on 6th February 2019.
Watch the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel here: