“ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL” THE MOST JAMES CAMERON FILM NOT DIRECTED BY JAMES CAMERON
Films like “Alita: Battle Angel” requires thousands of hands to work together, to create a film of this caliber. It’s easy to see within the films 2 hour running time, that one person in particular had the overpowering hand over the production. That would be mega producer and director James Cameron. “Alita” is a James Cameron film in scope, vision and structure and yet it’s not even directed by James Cameron, he only serves as screenwriter and producer.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is actually directed by Robert Rodriguez, who spent most of his career avoiding the big studios in favor of low budget, imaginative independent projects. Rodriguez best known for “From Dusk Till Dawn”, “Desperado” (clearly his two best films), he directed one half of “GrindHouse” with “Planet Terror” and directing “Sin City”. This is the first time since 2001 when directing “Spy Kids”, where he did not also serve as the film’s editor, director of photography, camera operator, steadicam operator, composer, production designer, visual effects supervisor and sound editor, like all of his other films. The $200 million budget for “Alita” is by far the biggest thing Rodriguez has ever taken on as a filmmaker. However the end result just feels like the helmer is occasionally biting off more than he can chew. It feels more suited for Steven Spielberg.
“Alita” has been both a long awaited and often delayed film adaptation of the 1990s nine volume Japanese manga graphic novel series “Gunnm,” by Yukito Kishiro. It had always been a dream of James Cameron to direct and produce the manga since 1995, but the project stalled over the course of 24 years for two reasons: prior commitments and his own interest to direct “Titanic” in 1997 and the biggest obstacle being the technology, at the time had not caught up with the story and vision Cameron needed to represent and do justice to Kishiro’s world of “Alita”.
Like so many of these projects, “Alita” sticks to the formula. We get some eye-popping 3D visuals and a number of beautifully shot video game type action sequences. “Alita: Battle Angel” doesn’t have a unique identity of its own, it’s a gender swap futuristic “Pinocchio” and “Frankenstein”, with a mashup of the “Terminator” movies, a sprinkling of “Blade Runner”, “Total Recall”, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a dash of “Rollerball”, and topped off with some “Ghost in the Shell”.
“Alita: Battle Angel” takes place in an obligatory dystopian future, in the 26th century, long after a cataclysmic world war. Cameron and Rodriguez even got permission to mess around with the 20th Century Fox’s studio logo and change the 20 To 26th Century Fox. “Alita’s” opening moments introduces us to cyber physician Dr. Dyson Ido, played by two time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz scavenging around in the junk yards of Iron City. Dyson comes across the head and upper torso of an advanced cyborg, he brings it back to life by attaching her to a cyborg body he’s kept in his lab. Our freshly rebuilt heroine “Alita” (Rosa Salazar) is a young, free-spirited teenage girl with oversized eyes much like the paintings by Keane (which Christoph Waltz starred in Tim Burton’s biopic in “Big Eyes”).
“Alita” can’t remember her past but seems to have next-level fighting skills. She’s smart and savvy and gets all giddy when she’s around the bland and transparent Hugo (Keean Johnson). “Alita’s” blind devotion to him plays out like a YA novel, just as the whole film does. Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly sporting a gem on her forehead just like her real life husband has in “Avengers” who plays Vision in the films. She is saddled with the role of Dyson’s ex-wife Cherin, a humorless vixen who abandoned her husband and is now with Vector played by Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali, who controls everything that happens in Iron City. Sorry let me re-phrase that, he is controlled by the guy (played by an A-List actor in a cameo) who is the one who really controls everything that happens in Iron City.
Just about everyone in Iron City dreams of one day ascending to the wealthy and supposedly utopian sky city of Zalem, which hovers above Iron City, connected by enormous tube devices. The impoverished residents of Iron City are servants, with the fruits of their labors transported to Zalem, while everyone down below is left to fight for scraps. But how does one get the golden ticket to Zalem? Well one does so by becoming a champion at Motorball, which is a direct rip-off of James Caan’s film “RollerBall”, with Quidditch and NASCAR rolled in.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, “Alita” regains her memories and finds an advanced “Berserker” body, which leads Dr. Ido to replacing her body with the new Berserker body, that comes completed with bigger breasts, yep it’s that kind of movie. The suit makes her stronger and gives her ability at the cyborg martial art Panzer Kurst to become even more advanced.
The technology used to animate “Alita” is astounding, she never feels like a walking special effect and it’s helped by the fact that Rosa Salazar (Zendaya was the runner-up for the role) gives a terrific, star-making performance. Like motion capture legend Andy Serkis has done in his films, it makes you reconsider the limits of motion capture, as this feels like a fully realized performance. She gives “Alita” a soul. We’ve come a long way from the big originator of motion capture “The Polar Express”.
The villains are a bit weak. Mahershala Ali who will be taking home his second Oscar this year for “Green Book” camps it up as an evil entrepreneur Vector, walking around looking like Morpheus from “The Matrix”. Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen” and “Nightmare On Elm Street”), also in a motion-capture performance is the towering Grewishka, who comes off as the best of the villains.
Christopher Waltz plays Dr Dyson Ido. To which this could be a reference made by Cameron from his “Terminator 2” character Miles Dyson (Joe Morton). Dr Dyson Ido specializes in building & fixing cyborgs whereas Miles Dyson was responsible for the development of Skynet that built the cyborgs. Christoph Waltz was recommended to director Robert Rodriguez by their mutual friend, director Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino directed Waltz, the only actor to win an Oscar for a Tarantino film. Waltz won for “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Django Unchained” (2012). Christoph Waltz can sell a piece of trash he finds on the ground, that’s how good of an actor he is.
James Cameron confirmed in an interview that this is a combination of the first four books in Yukito Kishiro’s series of manga books. He also said that should this film be successful, he hopes to make another two “Battle Angel” films. It’s probably why in an ill-advised move, “Alita: Battle Angel” doesn’t have an ending. Instead, there’s a cliffhanger for a sequel that’s currently not in production, leaving audiences with little resolution for a story that inspires a lot of questions.
“Alita” delves into big picture issues about what it means to be human and it’s longer than it needs to be. “Alita” has over 40 minutes shot in IMAX and I’m sure it’s quite the experience in the revolutionary format. The film’s trailer looked like “Alita” was doomed to be an expensive mess. While mess isn’t exactly how I’d describe it, it’s just too many parts of much better sci-fi films. One of those films being most similar to Scarlett Johansson’s 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell”, which I think is a better film. “Alita: Battle Angel” has a bit more heart than I was expecting which is one of the best things in the script and the action sequences are filmed with fluid motion by Rodriguez. “Alita: Battle Angel” will be more known for it’s appeal as eye candy, but as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that this feels more of a James Cameron than a Robert Rodriguez film. As there is no evidence of having any influence of a Rodriguez film and that is a huge bummer.
GRADE: ★★ OUT OF ★★★★★