From the depths of development hell comes a new sci-fi classic; a masterclass in how to adapt manga to live action without sacrificing artistic integrity of its source — Alita: Battle Angel. Once a passion project of Oscar winner James Cameron (Avatar), it now emerges with Cameron’s producing power behind the unsung brilliance of director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), who takes his skills to the next level with a story of equal parts convention and innovation.
The story opens in the 26th century – Iron City is the one of the last civilizations on Earth. Above lies the floating utopia of Zolum, where people of Earth would kill to gain passage to. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) is a scrappy prosthetics repairman in Iron City who, on searching though a junk heap, finds a cybernetic torso, limbless but alive. Rescuing and rebuilding her, she awakens into a new world she doesn’t know. Given the name of Alita (Rosa Salazar, Maze Runner: The Death Cure), she embarks on a journey to find the truth about the past she can’t remember, all while Vector (Mahershala Ali, Green Book) and other pawns of Zolum will stop at nothing to acquire her.
Director Robert Rodriguez, largely known for making major movies on limited budgets (El Mariachi, Spy Kids, Machete) finally gets his just desserts with James Cameron’s producing prowess, to say nothing of a script to match co-penned by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys). In a first for Rodriguez’s career, the movie is shot almost entirely on-location in his beautiful home city of Austin, Texas, with palpable realism sight unseen in his career thus far. Technical skill is, however, not left to languish in the corner — filmed in 3D with scenes specially formatted exclusively for IMAX theatres, this is the finest 3D film since TRON: Legacy, and it demands to be seen in 3D — IMAX 3D, if possible (Sidenote: At Rodriguez’s orders, the IMAX presentations are only in 3D. Buck up.)
On the note of technical detail, in her design, Alita herself appears breathing and human despite her cybernetic body and exaggerated eyes, but those features are simply a means of honoring the manga — lesser filmmakers would have thrown the film’s source material to the wind and simply had an actress portray the character as they are (Dragonball: Evolution, I’m looking at you.) Truly, the team at Weta Digital are to be commended for their work, as are Rosa Salazar and the rest of the cast, for making sense of something that does not exist.
A film is only half of itself with a lousy cast — a problem not found here! Ms. Salazar is a joy to watch, performing the full breadth of Alita’s journey, from pretty innocent to street-smart fighter to warrior of Iron City, a type of story arc sadly not often seen in a decade of strong female characters. Christoph Walts makes a much-needed turn to a kindly character (which is apparently the main reason he took the role) — Dr. Ido is equal parts mentor to his charge and a bit of an overprotective father; it’s certainly a welcome change from seeing him play villains in American movies. Mahershala Ali is quite creepy in this, despite his status as the pawn of an unseen mastermind — more than once I was reminded, if not just in looks alone, of a very villainous take of Wesley Snipes in the Blade trilogy.
Additional cast members include Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer) as Dr. Chiren, a former colleague of Ido’s in league with the enemy, bringing a character that might otherwise be a one-note performance and giving it conflict and indecision. A brilliantly horrifying addition to the cast is Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) as a hulking cybernetic sociopath named Grewishka — he exudes menace, as villains should, but is more than the token pawn of the villains. Alita has a love interest in the form of Hugo (Keean Johnson, Nashville), a character that years for passage to Zolum at any cost, except where true love is concerned. Johnson may be seen as a little too Aladdin-y by moviegoers, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s good. His arc is a little sudden, but nothing so strong as to warrant a truly bad mark.
The only downside to the film may be this: I was reminded more than once while seeing Alita of another unsung sci-fi classic of not long ago — John Carter of Mars. Though this film is a much easier pill to swallow, and I do hope for its tremendous success, I worry that audiences will find similarities between this film and other sci-fi classics — highly ironic if so, that like Carter, the source material for this film predates the films those may erroneously claim it copies. Still, time and the box-office returns will tell.
Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi masterwork many, many years in the make, and it’s all been worth it in this reviewer’s eyes. Manga has been proven to be adaptable to live-action, Cameron’s journey has ended yet begun, Ms. Salazar has her star vehicle, and Rodriguez has the gilded feather in his cap — hopefully the first of many! Of course, to see more adventures through the streets of Iron City requires we see this film, in grand numbers. Let’s make it count, because if you’re at all like me, you will be thirsty for more stories of the battle angel herself!