James Cameron may finally have taken on more than he can handle.
2018’s Alita: Battle Angel will be an adaptation of the long-running cyberpunk manga serial Battle Angel Alita from auteur Yukito Kishiro, because apparently colons are important in Hollywood.
To try and summarise the 28-volume epic (and its new ongoing sequel/prequel) would take many lifetimes, but let’s see if we can cover the basics of the manga first, then see where Cameron’s adaptation is heading.
Alita (renamed from Gally in the original Japanese publication) is an amnesiac cyborg whose battered remains are found by fugitive cybermedic Ido in the Scrapyard, a city built around the literal junk of floating megacity Tiphares, at a vague point in the post-apocalyptic 26th century.
Ido rebuilds Alita only to find she is an expert in a highly destructive martial art known as Panzer Kunst, and she joins Ido on his nightly crusade as a vigilante, trying to clean out the cybernetically-boosted criminals and make the Scrapyard safer for all.
It’s a crusty, ‘used future’ approach – the denizens of Scrapyard do what they can with the detritus of Tiphares, wombling and scavenging through whatever high tech debris has rained down on their makeshift slums each night. Human bodies are weak and replaceable – cybernetic enhancements are status symbols, the bigger and crazier the better.
After the duo take down a cannibalistic serial killer, Alita finds love with local boy Hugo, whose dream of finding a better life up in Tiphares ends in tragedy. In the aftermath Alita finds solace as a rising star in the world of Motorball, best visualised as what would happen if we got Skynet drunk and let it play Rollerball against itself.
As she unlocks more of her powers and memories, Alita realises a bigger journey lies ahead – one that will lead her to discover the terrible secret of Tiphares, then into outer space and the middle of a war threatening to tear the entire galaxy apart.
It is, in a word, bonkers. The volumes charting Alita’s time in the Motorball scene are full of intense, visceral combat, and when Alita finds herself joining the team representing Earth in a galactic martial arts tournament, entire issues of the manga would pass covering a single fight as titantic battles exploded their way across pages – combatants shattering planets with single punches, waves of sizzling energy burning out from each panel.
It boasts the same lavish attention to detail as Kenichi Sonoda’s Gunsmith Cats – intricately drawn machinery, thoroughly-researched explorations of physics, combat and astronomy, either through lengthy monologues by the colourful cast (usually crackpot supervillain turned ally Desty Nova) or as side notes crammed into the margins between panels like the scrawls of an overeager schoolboy.
It’s also an utter masterpiece that has run for almost 30 years with no signs of stopping; full of humour, tragedy, violence, shattering revelations and the same level of dense, intricate plotting that I adore on IDW’s Lost Light.
So what can the mind that brought us The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and Avatar do with a concept not so much ‘high’ as near-stratospheric?
News so far on Cameron and co-producer Jon Landau’s opus is slim beyond casting and some crew announcements – the project had been gestating for many years as Cameron waited for a gap in the production schedule of what appear to be eighteen Avatar sequels nobody wants, but eventually Robert Rodriguez signed on to direct with a script by Laeta Kalogidris (Shutter Island), which looks to adapt the broad strokes of the first four manga volumes. This should cover Alita’s origin, her tender almost-romance with Hugo and her chaotic season in the Motorball big leagues – an anime movie from 1993 adapted the first two volumes, and remains to date the only such version of Alita’s odyssey.
Landau has commented that their movie will chart “a young woman’s journey to self-discovery”, and ask of its characters “what does it mean to be human?” Given the disposable attitude the 26th century populace has towards flesh and blood in the anime, we can expect the same ‘ghost in the machine’ philosophical ground movies like RoboCop and anime such as Serial Experiments Lain flirted with before now.
Cameron has made plenty of noise about wanting CG technology to catch up to his vision, suggesting a green screen-heavy production with lots of mo-cap: another reason why Avatar came first in his priorities. Alita’s world is full of bodies twisted and enhanced far beyond human limits by excessive cybernetics, which would have made many of the main characters difficult to recreate in purely live-action.
Principal photography wrapped in February 2017, and the near 18-month gap from then to the film’s release indicates the finished product will follow Avatar‘s lead. I don’t think I was alone in considering Avatar an animated movie with occasional live-action sequences. Also, it’s Pocahontas in space, but that’s an opinion for another article.
Rodriguez has snuck some of his usual collaborators into the cast, including Michelle Rodriguez and rising star Eiza Gonzalez, fresh off the fun but sadly cancelled From Dusk Till Dawn TV series. Despite coming from manga, the Battle Angel Alita series was set in the United States, offering Cameron the freedom to build his cast free from the ‘whitewashing’ accusations that dogged Scarlet Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. That film may have fudged a narrative excuse for ScarJo’s ethnicity, but Alita: Battle Angel seems to be playing it pretty safe.
Fresh from the doomed Divergent franchise, Rosa Salazar will make a likeable Alita, and while Christoph Waltz doesn’t seem right for nerdy inventor turned plucky vigilante Ido, the roster also boasts Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Harley and Ed Skrein.
There is plenty of opportunity to play each role as several times larger than life – we probably won’t get the same level of irreverent metahumour as Kishiro’s work, but if Alita gets even halfway close to the hyperkinetic, explosive mayhem of its source material, we may get a fresh classic in the new wave of modern cyberpunk to join Blade Runner 2049 and (hopefully) Ready Player One.
Alita: Battle Angel will be released on July 20, 2018.