Alita: Battle Angel - A feast for the eyes but a famine of story-telling
A film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga, Battle Angel Alita, has been in development for quite some time. The cyberpunk manga was published between 1990-1995 and earned a number of devoted fans - including James Cameron, who found great success in the 80s and 90s bringing sci-fi and tentpole projects to life on the big screen. In my opinion, Terminator 2 and Aliens remain high points in his oeuvre.
Cameron spent more than a decade attempting to crack the potential big screen iteration of Battle Angel Alita. However, he eventually moved on to his groundbreaking film franchise, Avatar (which never appealed), and director Robert Rodriguez took over the task of trying to bring Battle Angel Alita to life. Now, the film adaptation of Kishiro's manga finally comes to life with Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel, which uses much of the script Cameron wrote. Alita: Battle Angel is a mesmerizing feat of filmmaking - and stunning in 3D - that struggles under the weight of adapting such rich source material.
For me it is substance over story, a fate that Avatar suffered from. There is no doubt that Cameron can create amazing worlds from scratch, however Ridley Scott's world in Bladerunner is still the best.
So where are we with Alita? The film follows the titular cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who's found mostly disassembled in the scrapyard of Iron City by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Ido takes Alita's still living core and attaches it to the cyborg body he had created for his daughter before her death. When the cyborg awakens in Ido's care, he names her Alita after his daughter. But, of course, Alita isn't his daughter and yearns to learn who she really is. Discovering the world around her, Alita is fascinated by Iron City, the remnants of society living beneath the last floating city of Zalem, and its inhabitants - particularly Hugo (Keean Johnson). And Alita is especially enthralled by the sport of Motorball, which Hugo teachers her how to play with some local teenagers.
However, there is a danger lurking just beneath the surface of Iron City - both literally and figuratively. Vector (Mahershala Ali) and Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) sponsor some of the most successful Motorball players, but they have a side operation that gives them connections to incredibly powerful people in Zalem. As Alita discovers the darkness in Iron City and begins to learn about her history as a warrior, she resolves to become a hunter-warrior (a bounty hunter) and fight against evil, especially the villainous cyborg Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). As Alita gets closer to discovering who she truly is and her purpose, there are those in both Iron City and Zalem who conspire to take the cyborg down and Alita finds herself in a battle not only for her life, but for the lives of those she loves.
Alita: Battle Angel is nothing short of a mesmerizing spectacle and is no doubt best experienced in the highest quality format possible. The world of Iron City, the Badlands and Zalem is full of depth and texture, highlighting each piece of the setting - down to the dust motes floating in the light - in beautifully rendered 3D. The Motorball scenes especially must be highlighted as full of adrenaline-pumping action sequences. Although the Motorball scenes must have been brought to life almost entirely with CGI, the 3D experience helps them to feel more visceral and real. Each aspect of this dystopian world is thought through, and it shows in the carefully wrought film-making.
Where Alita: Battle Angel struggles is the story, which was worked on by Cameron, Kalogridis and Rodriguez in an attempt to bring Kishiro's manga to live-action. However, it becomes clear from the inconsistent pacing - at times moving too quickly through events, and other times languishing too long on certain story beats - that this is a much longer story cut down to its barest bones. The result is a two-hour movie that somehow feels three hours long because so much is jam-packed into it, but Alita: Battle Angel still leaves major gaps in the story and world-building. What is included in Alita: Battle Angel is fascinating and the movie does manage to flesh out Iron City and Zalem as much as it can, but it's almost as if the most interesting aspects were saved for a sequel. Alita: Battle Angel is very much an origin story for the titular hero, and it's a solid origin story at that, but it's also one that paves the way for potentially more compelling tales to come.
Go see it, not for it's story but for it's ground-breaking visuals. Oh, and see it in 3D on the largest screen you can find.