Genuine spectacle rises above the scraps.
Manga has had a tricky, often unsuccessful journey to the big screen. Look at recent efforts, Ghost in the Shell and Dragonball: Evolution – bombastically colourful, enthusiastically marketed, but to no avail. Alita: Battle Angel has been in the works for quite sometime though; first picked up by James Cameron in 2003, he was forced to delay production continuously due to his love affair with Pandora. While he has remained on producing and writing duties, the director’s chair fell to Robert Rodriguez, who curbed the languish and ensured the film’s completion. The result is a brilliantly dazzling vision brought to life by admirably literal craftsmanship, inhibited by a lumpy, trope-ridden screenplay.
Set in the 26th Century (as the opening Fox titles inform us), Alita (Rose Salazar) is found abandoned in a scrapyard by Ido (Christopher Waltz), a cyber-doctor, who takes her home and fixes her up. When she wakes, she has no memory of who or what she is. She begins her journey of self-discovery in the treacherous streets of Iron City, pondering the wonders of the mysterious haven in the sky, while sparking up a relationship with kind-spirited Hugo (Keean Johnson).
Alita is envisioned with stunning, sometimes eerie motion-capture – her characteristically human behaviour making a bizarre but bewitching match with her exaggerated facial features. Salazar plays her with plenty of humanity, and while many of the character’s best moments are due credit in other areas, she retains a certain mettle and emotional core. The story brings together various sub-genres into a cliche-filled but cohesive mix; at first our unassuming hero is a complete fish-out-of-water, learning that you don’t eat orange skin and chocolate is the god’s food. Then there’s the coming-of-age side, as she embraces urges to rebel against her fatherly creator. There are broad strokes of Frankenstein and Pinnochio throughout, Waltz’ compassionate whiz almost like a futuristic Geppetto (with an obvious but tragic backstory alongside his ex-wife, played by Jennifer Connelly).
Watching the titular cyborg traverse the densely-detailed city is a spectacle in itself. Rodriguez and his crack-team of visual effects maestros create a breathing, video game dystopia – fluorescent, lurid, filled with tiny details about general life this far in time. The affable amour at the heart of the film is more schtick than splendour, an area in which dramatic contrivances particularly irk as you take in the awe-inspiring effects. The screenplay itself is littered with forced interactions and Chekhov’s Guns – “look at that sword!” Alita says early on, a weapon you can safely assume will be in her hands by the end.
It’s never boring, but Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (adapting Gunnm by Yuckito Kushiro) seem to pace the story in a stop-start style, recurring villains popping in back and forth, preventing the narrative from actually going anywhere. For the most-part, the cast are game; Waltz cuts an interesting take from the cloth, and Mahershala Ali makes an amusing, nefarious turn as Vector, a villain who wears sunglasses in the dead of night and reaps delightful lines like: “You are the scum of the game, but tonight, you’re hand-picked scum”. There is an overarching theme of acceptance buried somewhere, but the true success of the blockbuster is the industrial beat-em-ups.
Unlike the crash-bang-whallop fare of the Transformers series, Alita’s transformation into the Battle Angel and subsequent set-pieces are not edited within an inch of their life. Despite the fantastical exchanges of robotic weaponry, the viewer can always follow (thanks to the vivid, inviting and varied-in-scale cinematography of Bill Pope), inspiring your heart to race rather than your head to ache. Creative, bonkers flourishes in the fights are the greatest take-away; Motorball, the world’s favourite sport (riffing on the callousness of Rollerball) provides some real, epic moments. But what’s mildly concerning is the age rating. There’s the token f-word, but the denouement of each clash is often brutal and not shy to bloodshed. People literally get cut in half and crushed into machinery, and Ed Skrein’s gripping bounty hunter is a fascinating, frightening foe – in other words, think carefully before taking the kids along.
Sincerely though, the action is tremendously exciting; tangible and fierce, imaginative and harsh. The film does walk a sort of awkward line between immaturity, grit and the ludicrous, but Junkie XL (no stranger to scoring kinetic spectaculars after Fury Road) keeps the composition upbeat and layered with pulsating power. The ending is infuriatingly arrogant, a product of greed and perhaps mild naivety; but ignoring that sour taste, this is a surprisingly entertaining outing in the strained manga film roster.
A big-budget, not-so family-friendly adventure that kicks a healthy amount of robo-ass.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm