Among the most rapidly growing trends in the world of filmmaking is the marriage of practical action with CGI. Thanks in large part to the popularity of superhero films and adaptations of literary fantasy adventures, blending the two is growing more and more commonplace. Leave it to James Cameron to merge them to perfection with “Alita: Battle Angel”. Based on Yukito Kishiro’s acclaimed manga and anime series “Gunnm”, “Alita” brings the world of its source material to life like no other manga adaptation before it. Even if you’re not familiar with its namesake, “Alita” will leave you grinning ear to ear as it takes you on an adventure through hovering post-apocalyptic sky-cities, out-of-this-world action sequences, and Rosa Salazar’s captivating, mo-cap-based performance as the title character!
Rosa Salazar leads the film as the titular cybernetic heroine, Alita, while Christoph Waltz portrays her human scientist ally, Dr. Dyson Ido. Keean Johnson steps into the role of Alita’s street-smart human love interest, Hugo, while Mahershala Ali assumes the role of sinister billionaire Vector. Jennifer Connelly appears as Ido’s ex-wife and Vector’s close confidant, Chiren while Ed Skrein assumes the role of the arrogant cybernetic assassin, Zapan and Jackie Earle Haley tackles Vector’s cybernetic assassin, Grewishka.
Michelle Rodriguez also appears in the role of Gelda, a cyborg mentor from Alita’s past glimpsed through flashbacks. Additionally, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Lana Condor portray Hugo’s close friends, Tanji and Koyomi, while the villainous puppet master of the film, Nova, remains in the shadows throughout the film, with the identity of his portrayer kept under wraps until the very end.
In the year 2563, much of the world has been left in ruins after a conflict known as “The Fall” three hundred years earlier. In the decrepit remains of Iron City, cyber-scientist Dr. Dyson Ido discovers the remains of a female cyborg with an intact human brain while searching for scrap metal in the city’s massive trash heap.
Dr. Ido successfully rebuilds the cyborg, albeit with no memory of her past, and names her “Alita” after his deceased daughter. After befriending a street urchin named Hugo, Alita quickly develops a fascination with the high-stakes sport of “Motorball”, and latches onto Hugo’s dream of one day moving to “Zalem”, the prosperous metropolis in the sky that hovers over Iron City.
After defending Dr. Ido from an attack by the vicious cyborg assassin Grewishka, Alita elects to join a class of bounty hunters known as “Hunter Warriors”, in order to get to the bottom of Grewishka’s attack on Dr. Ido and bring down the man pulling all the strings in Zalem, the mysterious Nova.
As is the case with any project bearing James Cameron’s fingerprints, “Alita: Battle Angel” is a sight to behold. With visual effects technology more advanced than ever, “Alita” awes at every turn with such sights as floating cities that would be the envy of Lando Calrissian, junkyards of long-discarded scrap metal spanning as far as the eye can see, and cybernetic humans brought to life as people of flesh, blood, and steel.
Cameron’s eye for visual flair and wonderment marries perfectly with the directorial talents of Robert Rodriguez, and the latter obviously relished the larger canvas he was given to work with by the scope and scale of the film. There’s not a moment of “Alita” that doesn’t feel like the dream-like, ethereal world of an anime brought to life, but what ultimately solidifies that is Rosa Salazar’s performance as the title character.
Salazar’s Alita takes in this brave new world she’s born into with a state of child-like wonder, her silver dollar-sized eyes eagerly searching for the next amazing discovery that lies around the corner. With Salazar portraying the role entirely via performance capture, Alita is without a doubt the year’s first true visual effects achievement and an absolutely dynamite performance on Salazar’s part. In the often perilous quest to translate anime to live-action while retaining the distinctive visual qualities that make it popular, “Alita” is arguably rivalled only by “The Matrix” (and, to a lesser extent, “Ready Player One”).
The film also makes possibly the most convincing case yet for the use of performance capture as a tool for designing action. Without a doubt, the action sequences in “Alita” are among the best displays of superhuman martial arts action you’ll ever lay eyes on. If anime and manga lovers don’t already feel right at home from the opening credits (which, in a nice throw-away gimmick, adjust the logo to read “26th Century Fox”), they certainly will the instant our heroine soars through the air to put a stop to Dr. Ido’s alleyway attackers.
Between the origins of the source material and Alita’s mastery of the martial art “Panzer Kunst” (German for “Armoured Art”), the film really gets to cut loose with action sequences that equal anything a mega-budget superhero movie can offer. However, the use of performance capture also keeps the action grounded in the sense of weight and human dimension that ultimately bring a feeling of reality to the superhuman abilities of our heroine and her fellow Hunter-Warriors. The bar fight at the film’s mid-point also gives Alita an opportunity to psychologically step up her game. Whereas before she defeated Dr. Ido’s attackers with a sense of surprise at abilities she didn’t realize she possessed, she now cleans house against enemies two or even five times her size with the confidence of a veteran bouncer.
And she’s certainly not one to back down even when the going gets its roughest, as we see in her second encounter with Grewishka (which MUST be kept vague, lest the sheer sweetness of its conclusion be spoiled). The ultimate centrepiece of the film, however, is its climactic Motorball sequence, and there’s no better endorsement I can make for it than to say that, as of right now, there is simply nothing playing in theatres that can give you more bang for your buck than this does. The last ten minutes, meanwhile, keeps things open-ended enough to see where another trip to Iron City might take us, and it’s certainly hard not to want one after seeing what a game of Motorball looks like!
With a veritable tsunami of mesmerizing effects and incredible, electrifying action, “Alita: Battle Angel” is by far the biggest dose of pure razzle dazzle you can pay to see this year so far.
With her performance as Alita, Rosa Salazar also takes her place alongside the great Andy Serkis in making the case for awards recognition for mo-cap based performances. The world’s biggest “Alita” fans and the most clueless of newbies alike will leave the theatre blown away. When we get to the summer movie season, we’ll have plenty of adventures with warrior women waiting to make their grand debut – let’s hope most of them are at least half as good as “Alita: Battle Angel”!
- The film has been James Cameron’s pet project since the mid-90’s. Due to his commitments to directing the sequels to his 2009 film “Avatar”, Cameron hand-picked Robert Rodriguez to direct to the film, with Cameron himself serving as producer and co-screenwriter with Laeta Kalogridis.
- The film was originally scheduled to be released on December 21st, 2018, but was pushed back to February 14th, 2019 in order to avoid the crowded pre-Christmas release window that included “Aquaman”, “Bumblebee”, and “Mary Poppins Returns”.
- Before Rosa Salazar’s casting as Alita, Zendaya, Maika Monroe, and Bella Thorne had also been considered for the role.
- Garrett Warren served as the film’s stunt coordinator. His prior credits as a stuntman and stunt coordinator include “Starship Troopers”, “Martial Law”, “Bumblebee”, “Lincoln”, “Immortals”, “Ready Player One”, “Logan”, and “Avatar”, in addition to the upcoming “Avatar” sequels. Additionally, Warren directed the (as yet-unreleased) third season of the web-series “Mortal Kombat: Legacy”, having also worked on season two as second unit director.
- The film’s design team collaborated with Open Bionics in designing a pair of artificial arms for Tilly Lockey, a 13-year old amputee, based on the design of Alita’s limbs in the film.
- Lockey subsequently attended the film’s premiere wearing her new set of arms. James Cameron himself describe the process of designing the synthetic limbs for Miss Lockey.
- “I do not standby in the presence of evil.” – Alita (as she prepares to battle Grewishka.)
- “Little Flea!” – Grewishka (mocking the petite Alita.)
- “F**k your mercy!” – Alita (during a fight with Grewishka where he mockingly promises to show her mercy.)