After a 20-something year development battle, Yukito Kushiro’s cyberpunk manga series, Alita: Battle Angel, has finally made its way onto the big screen. Co-written and Co-produced by the science fiction king himself James Cameron, it’s no wonder that this mythical project took so long to come to fruition. Seeing as how he has been hard at work on his precious Avatar franchise since 2009 (and hasn’t worked on anything else since), when Cameron has his eyes on something, he doesn’t know when to quit. And even with him not in the director’s chair, you feel the “Cameronisms” pop out in the script.
Alita: Battle Angel is directed by Cameron’s long term collaborator, Robert Rodriguez, who has no problem working with gritty, urban settings. It’s set in the Iron City, 300 years after a cataclysmic event called “The Fall.” Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a working cyborg in a scrapyard and decides to resurrect her in his workshop. He gives her the name Alita and forms a father-daughter bond with her. Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no recollection of her past life, and through her infant perspective, we learn about the dense world that these people reside in. It’s dirty, crowded, and seems to be run by mob bosses rather than traditional governing forces. The only thing that people look toward to is trying to buy their way into Zalem, the elite city in the sky.
The only way to get into Zalem is to become champion of Motorball, a violent sport where competitors score as many points as possible while murdering anyone in their way. But Dr. Ido doesn’t want Alita competing in Motorball, the trauma of brutal death of his daughter still linger. Instead, he wants to shield Alita from all the violence in the world, but after learning who Alita used to be realizes that it’s not possible.
Because of previous live-action adaptations from animes (Ghost in the Shell, Death Note), Alita had everything going against it: a mostly CGI setting, non-Asian cast (though Kushiro has stated that he didn’t write the manga with any Asian setting or cast in mind), and a multi-volume manga being squished into a two hour movie. However, for the most part, it works. The filmmakers take advantage of their $200 million budget and create a world that is so detailed and full of life. Its Blade Runner-esque style takes from classic science fiction settings and gives us something so utterly unique.
Rosa Salazar is the standout performance in this all-star cast. Even though her eyes and body are not her own, she’s able to convey both Alita’s inquisitive and protective nature. She starts as a naive teenager and blossoms into a young woman, determined to find her place in the world.
Unfortunately, it’s in the writing of her character where most of the “Cameronisms” pop out. As far as female action heroes go, she lacks very little agency. Most of her actions are to protect the men in her life, whether it’s Dr. Ido or her boyfriend Hugo (Keean Johnson). At one point, she even offers to give her heart to Hugo, so that he may sell it to get to Zalem. Her and Hugo’s relationship felt so stiff and forced that it takes everything not to cringe whenever they are on screen together. Seeing as how Dr. Ido and Alita’s father-daughter relationship works so well, a male love interest really didn’t need to be present, but it’s Cameron. What are you going to do?
The weaknesses also lie in the screenplay where the story can’t seem to find its proper footing. It tries to take complex ideas from the manga and mesh them together for the sake of brevity but fails to capture the importance of these plot points. Some of these points could have been saved for a sequel but seeing as how this will probably be the only film, fleshing out the world as much as possible was probably the only option.
The screenplay’s weaknesses are overlooked by the film’s astounding spectacles, most notably the Motorball scene. They’re not only a feast for the eyes but simultaneously serve to tell Alita’s story of self-discovery. The action scenes escalate with Alita’s development, starting with a small one-on-one fight to a full-blown display of badassery on roller skates.
Contrary to popular opinion, Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel. Rodriguez and Cameron have created an intriguing setting that has the potential to tell more stories. With a genre as underrepresented as science fiction, Alita: Battle Angel is indeed a welcome addition.