James Cameron has been trying to bring Alita to the silver screen for years. As far back as the year 2000, he had registered the domain name battleangelalita.com, with the intention of directing a film in the world based on the Japanese manga (comic). Alas, his schedule was too full to let this project come to fruition, and it fell by the wayside.
But in 2016, the film had new life breathed into it, now under the direction of Robert Rodriguez but still supervised by James Cameron. After a long wait, Alita would finally be introduced to mainstream audiences. Fans of the manga were excited and looked forward to seeing a live-action imagining of the manga they loved.
The first trailer, when it arrived, took viewers by surprise.
Featuring a fully CG version of Alita (performance captured by Rosa Salazar), the main point of conversation was the depiction of Alita’s eyes, large and styled in a fashion most commonly associated with Japanese anime. It was unexpected and divided audiences. After seeing the trailer, no-one knew what to expect of the film, and further marketing continued to divide the fan-base.
Well the movie is finally out and I got a chance to see it. Now, I admit that I have not read the source manga, and all I know of the property is from what I have read in articles and seen in trailers. Even so, I have been quietly anticipating this film, hoping that it would turn out better than the critics were expecting.
And for the most part… It’s actually a fun piece of entertainment.
Focusing on the amnesiac cyborg Alita, the film is set far in the future where the haves live in a floating city called Zalem, while the have-nots live on the ground on Earth dreaming of a chance to make it up to Zalem. Alita is on a quest to regain her memories, to find out who she was before she was found by her adopted father, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Helping her is her friend Hugo (Keean Johnson), but mysterious forces are determined to put an end to her journey and her life.
At the crux of it, Alita is just another hero’s journey, but where it really excels are in its world-building and impressive visual effects. Through cityscapes, plains, forests, and the twists and turns of the motorball arena, I doubt there is a single frame that was not seamlessly enhanced or altered by Weta‘s Visual effects team. Mixed with snippets of dialogue and beautiful set-piece hinting at a larger lore, it all comes together to create a world whose mythos and history you want to learn more of.
But not all the CG is perfect. The most obvious effects are, as mentioned before, the creation of Alita and the rest of the cybernetic beings that inhabit the world. While I applaud Weta for the photo-realistic look they have achieved in the depiction of the titular cyborg, they still haven’t yet conquered the uncanny valley. There is something about Alita’s facial expressions that sets her apart from the rest of her live-action counterparts, that signals that she is a purely a visual creation.
I think give it a few more years and we truly won’t be able to distinguish cg actors from real one, but we are not there yet. It’s a puzzling choice by the film-makers to replace all of Salazar’s performance with a CG double that looks like her. The majority of the other cyborgs onscreen were a mixture of CG effects but with the faces of the original actors (Ed Skrien as the bounty hunter Zapan for example), and the composting of live-action with CG looked a lot better than Alita’s full CG effect. I think if the effects team had kept Salazar’s face for Alita, but augmented it instead of replacing it, then the integration of Alita with the rest of the cast would have been better as a whole.
That said, Alita is still an impressive creation, and when she is fully encapsulated in the visual mayhem of the many action scenes in the movie, she is a delight to behold. She is a kick-ass cyborg and totally deserving of having the spotlight in the film. The nuances of Salazar’s performance capture shines through in Alita, and the audience is invested in learning more about the mystery surrounding the cybernetic teen.
This is another one of those movies that needs to be seen in the cinema to fully be able to take in its visual mastery. It holds a lot of promise and begs to be given a sequel. Unfortunately the buzz on the street is that it won’t make back its production budget, but if it does, then it’s definitely created a great environment for future films in this franchise to play in.
Alita: Battle Angel is a good start for the series and I hope you give it a chance in the movie theatre. I give it a 7.5 out of 10.
And no, there are no end credit scenes.