James Cameron likes to work slowly. Since Titanic 22 years ago, he’s only made two movies: Avatar and Ghosts of the Abyss, a documentary about the Titanic.
Cameron bought the movie rights to Alita: Battle Angel from its Japanese manga creator Yukito Kishiro not long after Titanic came out.
Despite working on the script on-and-off for two decades, he ended up ceding directing duties to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn) once production on four Avatar sequels took priority.
But he remains the screenwriter, alongside Altered Carbon creator Laeta Kalogridis, and a producer.
Alita: Battle Angel perfectly captures what so often plagues recent Cameron projects — an ambitious and technologically impressive movie dragged down by a lousy script.
The lesson seems to be the longer it takes for Cameron to write something, the more ordinary it’s going to be.
Rodriguez, before signing on as director apparently also took a pass at the script but he’s not a credited screenwriter on the final cut.
Set centuries into the future, in some post-apocalyptic dystopian world, society has been divided into the haves and have-nots. Most are the have-nots and they’re the earth-dwellers living in industrial Iron City while the hoity toity set literally hover above them in a floating city in the sky called Zalem.
Among the scrap heaps, Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds a disembodied cyborg “core”. Ido, the neighbourhood cyborg doc who stitches up broken humans and borgs alike, rebuilds his find and wakes her up.
He names her Alita (Rosa Salazar provides the motion-capture performance) as she can’t remember her own, or anything else from her past.
She seems to have a killer fighting instinct that kicks in when threatened, seemingly trained in Panzer Kurst, a lost martial art.
In Iron City, the citizens scrounge for scraps while mass entertainment comes in the form of the gladiatorial Motorball — a kind of steampunk roller derby meets Quidditch on acid — where its competitors strive for the title of ultimate champion, where the reward is ascension to Zalem.
Alita discovers Motorball when she meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a teenage human boy that she’s seriously crushing on.
Motorball is only one aspect of this disjointed story, a mishmash of parts that is mostly insignificant except for that one moment when it is. Other plot points include various foes such as the monstrous cyborg assassin named Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), the evil overlord Nova (a big name actor revealed in the movie’s closing moments), Nova’s Iron City lackey Vector (a criminally misused Mahershala Ali) and rival bounty hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein).
While the overall story involves Alita discovering her past, her confidence and her purpose, the movie does this by throwing up a ragtag collection of challenges that don’t cohere well and is largely forgettable — making it hard to invest in anything that’s going on.
What Alita: Battle Angel does well is showcase the tech wizardry behind bringing this CGI character to life — other than the inhumanly large manga eyes, Alita is as photo-real as we’ve seen on screen, the details you can see on her face are remarkable.
(Realistic hair movement, as ever, remains elusive.)
Much of that has to do with the tech advances made by the production and by Weta Digital in terms of the emotions it can translate from Salazar’s human performance to what they augment onto Alita’s face. There is a lot of relatable humanity in this cyborg character.
But then Alita: Battle Angel fails to really explore what separates humans from cyborgs and the value of each of those lives, especially when most of the humans in its world has mechanical parts.
The action sequences are also a highlight — big set pieces that are thrilling and kinetic and just fun to watch. The choreography of Alita’s Panzer Kurst fighting style is particularly riveting.
Viewing tip: skip the 3D sessions. I’ve yet to be convinced that 3D is anything other than a distracting gimmick that routinely takes you out of the story — and considering how quickly most studios and filmmakers have dropped the 3D craze of eight years ago, many moviegoers agree.
There is more depth to Alita’s face in a 3D screening — her pores will jump out at you — but it’s not so much of an upgrade to weather out the rest of the movie in 3D.
Alita: Battle Angel isn’t for everyone, despite the movie’s gutsy ending banking on there being at least one sequel.
There’s a certain demographic who’s going to eat up this sci-fi spectacle with gusto. But if the story of Alita: Battle Angel had been as good as its technical achievements, it could’ve won over a much wider audience.
Alita: Battle Angel is in cinemas from today.
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