When Titanic hit UK cinemas in early-1998, no one could have predicted that it would be late-2009 before a new James Cameron film arrived. Much of that wait was due to Cameron indulging his love of deep sea diving, and working on the technology to be utilised in Avatar. Avatar itself, though, was not announced until the mid-2000s. Before this, Cameron had been working on a property named ‘Battle Angel Alita’: based on a Japanese manga property. That it has taken since 2003 to get this to the screen, speaks to his tenacity and determination. Time has beaten him, in terms of being able to find time to direct this himself – with Robert Rodriguez replacing him in the chair; but as producer and screenwriter for the resulting Alita: Battle Angel, this remains very much a James Cameron product.
Set in the year 2563, two centuries after an never-explained-in-this-film event referred to as ‘The Fall’ (evidently some kind of global catastrophe), Alita: Battle Angel is set in a World where ordinary people live in overstuffed, poverty-stricken cities such as Iron City – the location for the events of the movie. In look, there is a little bit of Dredd, a little bit of the contemporary favela, and a touch of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. In the sky sits the domain of the wealthy and privileged, a sky city named Zalem. Much like the aforementioned Elysium, or similar devices in films such as Michael Bay’s The Island, entry to Zalem is the prize for the citizens of Iron City: the long-shot that will transform their tough lives forever.
The scrapyards of Iron City are combed continually by Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) for robotic parts, as he is a robo-surgeon, able to graft artificial parts onto amputees and people in other ways damaged. When he finds the living remains of a cyborg, which he comes to name ‘Alita’ (Rosa Salazar) – after his deceased daughter, he rebuilds her, then offers her a home believing her to have been built for war. Alita, suffering from no memory, slowly begins to unlock her past, learn her place in the World, fall in love, and fight the nefarious forces corrupting the city – including Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido’s former wife.
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From the strong female lead, outwardly gentle, but discovering her strength as events unfold, to the slightly stilted, stiff dialogue, to a male love interest who looks like something out of the 80s Brat Pack, this feels very much in James Cameron territory. Aside from this, though, it is more striking how little of its own identity Alita: Battle Angel actually has. Aside from the similarities already noted, this movie evokes a dizzying array of other properties. The film gives a good deal of screen time to a sport called ‘Motorball’: a mix of basketball, motor-racing and combat that evokes everything from the video game series WipeOut, to the 1975 Norman Jewison film Rollerball. The Junkyards look like a live action WALL-E. In the murderous law enforcement robotics we see creations very like ED-209 from Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, and the constant sight of heavy rain on futuristic streets showcasing a slightly Far East Asian bent is very Blade Runner. Whilst we can see Cameron in the writing, it is possible that the design of this film may have displayed a little more flair had he directed also.
Had Cameron signed on to direct, the budget may have been a little more lavish too. Whilst an expensive film, with an expansive set of visuals, there are a couple of tell-tale signs that a little more investment could have yielded even better results. There are a couple of street-level sets in Iron City that are over-used to the point of looking like TV. It was reminiscent of the recent Taron Egerton-starring Robin Hood (though nowhere near as bad), where just the reuse of just those couple of sets gives away that this is all make-believe. This extends to Alita herself. As a digital creation, she is located firmly in the uncanny valley. The design of the character emphasises the eyes. This was a mistake. Skin, hair and body are all acceptable; but the eyes are of the 2002, Sméagol standard – almost good enough for today, but not quite.
Plot and character work is a mixed bag. Mahershala Ali’s Vector, as the lead on-screen villain, is a waste of his talents, and Jennifer Connelly is capable of far more than glowering coldly – particularly when her character is written as a grieving mother. Augmented, cyborg villains, such as Ed Skrein’s Zapan and Jackie Earle Haley’s Grewishka, showcase interesting (yet, unsurprisingly, derivative) designs, with suitably broad turns; but we have seen flavours of this many, many times before. Love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson) is singularly the most irritating thing in the film, belonging, as he does, in a 1980s Diet Pepsi commercial. Cameron can certainly write young women: young men on the other hand…
The love interest is simply a bad idea. As the film starts, Alita is a blank slate. Her favourite food is the first thing she ever eats, until she eats something else – which then becomes her new favourite. She is full of joy at discovering what, from her perspective, are new things, such that everything is great. In that context, a love affair comes off less as sweet, and more as Alita imprinting upon the first acceptable option. That the actor himself is so incredibly bland means that it is very hard to invest in this in any way. As it drives much of the third act of the film, this is a problem.
More successful is the relationship between Dyson and Alita. For all the flaws on display here, there is so much heart in the relationship between a bereaved father, and a surrogate that he wants simply to protect. Alita’s surprise and glee at her burgeoning skill-set, and Dyson’s growing understanding that he will have to accept this, is very well-played. The action that accompanies this sequences is very well-shot, with Rose Salazar (who did motion capture for much of this) evidently a gifted physical actress.
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Alita: Battle Angel provides one of the more egregious examples of a film living for an unconfirmed sequel. Given this was written sometime after the most successful film ever made, and just before the film that dethroned it (Titanic and Avatar once having been at numbers two and one, respectively, on the all-time highest grossing films list), perhaps writing with this degree of confidence was understandable. It does mean, however, that this film is horribly frustrating in its final moments. Everything seems set up for one last, defining set-piece – and then… credits.
Despite all of its myriad flaws, Alita: Battle Angel demonstrates high quality action, decent visuals, good pacing, and a compelling story in a world that could host multiple stories and an engaging, interlinked world of different characters. On that basis, the film can be characterised more as promising than good. Pushing it from the acceptable to the really pretty decent, however, is the heart the film displays. Waltz and Salazar sell us their relationship, and his motives, in particular, are generally engaging. Such as with many big budget films that struggle at the box office, we are likely to be left with what is, effectively, a tease for much better.
For all that, Alita: Battle Angel is a perfectly enjoyable couple of hours.
Alita: Battle Angel is now on general release in UK cinemas.