James Cameron can be critiqued for any number of reasons, but impatience isn’t one of them. The director of “The Terminator” and “Titanic” sincerely wanted to make the film “Alita: Battle Angel” himself, but wanting wasn’t enough. For almost 20 years he planned for the Japanese comic book heroine to be the star of his next picture, but repeatedly set that aside “temporarily” in favor of another project that grabbed his attention. Finally, after committing to three simultaneous sequels to his 2009 epic “Avatar,” he decided to give his baby to a different director, though without really letting go.
An aficionado of science fiction with women at the forefront, Cameron was quick to obtain the rights to “Gunnm,” a series of comics created by Yukito Kishiro 30 years ago. So enthusiastic was he about the project that back in 2000 he registered an internet domain name for it, and only then set about writing the screenplay, and then another screenplay, a rewrite and yet another rewrite. In fact, before making the final decision to have Robert Rodriguez direct, he auditioned him covertly. He handed Rodriguez, who directed “Sin City” and “Desperado,” a script of twice the usual length, along with 600 pages of notes. Rodriguez came back with a new draft satisfactory to Cameron and got the nod as the film’s director, complete with a $170 million budget and an emotionally involved supreme producer.
In “Alita,” the year is 2563. Hundreds of years have passed since a catastrophic war ravaged the planet and left behind a cyberpunk aesthetic. Only one city, Zalem, remains as vibrant testimony to a magnificent civilization that existed in the past. Zalem floats above the underprivileged Iron City on the ground below, draws energy and resources from it, and also dumps refuse on it, which residents consider a treasure.
The symbolism is not complex. Everyone in Iron City fantasizes about being on Zalem, but it’s strictly off-limits. In fact, no one has seen the city above and returned to tell the tale. It’s accessible only via a murderous mass sport called motorball – which offers players something like the odds of winning the lottery, but where making a mistake about the “extra number” ends in a beheading.
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As befits a post-apocalyptic world in cyberpunk style, most of the characters have undergone a variety of transplants; they exist on the spectrum between a human and a machine with a mohawk. One day, Dr. Ido, a physician and scientist who specializes in technological and digital upgrading, finds a severed head. He hurries home to attach an artificial body, and the result is the cyborg Alita. Lacking any memory of her former life, Alita accepts Dr. Ido as a loving father figure. She then sets out to discover the world, equipped with a healthy curiosity about herself, the urban fabric she encounters and a sympathetic young man named Hugo.
So it is that we become acquainted with the different sides of Iron City, beautiful and ugly alike, which together forge a peculiar composite of stories. The attempt to throw everything possible into the picture produces a world of headhunters prone to upgrading their bodies into killing machines – but also the kind of romantic moment found in teen dramas. The whole is interwoven with a dramatic plot revolving around a murderous sport involving a ball, electric rollerblades and a license to commit wholesale murder on the playing field.
If all this is confusing, that’s only logical. The best way to explain what the film is about is to note that the plot doesn’t get in the way of the action. Each development is designed to lead Alita, like a piece on a chessboard, to the next square. Thus, from one battle to the next, from villain to villain, Alita uncovers something new about her past, about the world and about her abilities and skills.
Since the picture depicts a journey of self-discovery, Rodriguez doesn’t spend as much time constructing a narrative as he does in leading Alita into dark corners that stir memories of her former life as a warrior.
The action itself successfully blends the two worlds of the director and the producer. The special effects maintain Cameron’s standards – he is continuing to work with the team behind “Avatar” – and even if there are no breakthroughs this time, Cameron’s influence is palpable. Rodriguez, directing at an enjoyable, fast-paced clip, preserves high momentum throughout, almost without stumbling. He also shows a certain fondness for digital blood, which is seemingly partially tempered in a world where the body is mechanical, but not always. As the movie advances and the audience becomes more familiar with its visual aspects, the sight of amputated limbs takes on an increasingly sadistic cast.
By infusing the digital character with a sense of humanity, Rosa Salazar mitigates the particularly violent moments. The heroine encounters no few villains along the way, from the headhunters to the mysterious ex-wife of Dr. Ido, played by Jennifer Connelly (“Requiem for a Dream”), and the head honcho of motorball, played by Mahershala Ali. All of them, without exception, underestimate her, but she pays them no heed. From battle to battle, Alita discovers she is a master of an ancient form of cyborg combat, one that was lost centuries earlier and which for some reason is known only to her. She doesn’t remember her name, where she’s from or how to eat an orange, but one fist raised in her direction is enough to make her react instinctively and tear people apart.
The close attention Cameron devotes to creating the mythology of the new world translates into striking visuals, and beyond special effects, the digital world is interwoven with live-action shots. There is an impressive seamlessness between the world that’s photographed and the computerized world, enabling viewers to adapt to the distorted scene in which the story unfolds. It’s worth noting, in this connection, that the heroine’s huge eyes, which unnerved me a bit in the trailer, took only a little getting used to at the start of the film, and didn’t disturb me in the least afterward.
What does cast a pall on the movie is the sequel malady that has afflicted blockbusters in recent years. The attempt to foist on a film the loose ends of future plots sabotages “Alita,” too, though here it’s done with a kind of bold arrogance that’s easily attributable to Cameron. Rodriguez responded to his critics in advance, saying in interviews that for him the story is Alita’s self-discovery – who she is, where she came from – and, as such, the film stands on its own. Nevertheless, it’s not so much that the ending leaves an opening for a sequel, but that it confidently assumes one is on the way. The result: an inordinate number of questions are left unresolved. The only thing missing was a formal “to be continued.”
Still, “Alita” is an epic-scale movie that achieves its goal. At the same time, the action never stops, robotic bodies are atomized as though there’s no tomorrow, and a small woman proves to hosts of upgraded men that size doesn’t matter. Over and above all this, the story contains the simplistic but effective foundation stones that are identified with Cameron: He is preoccupied with issues of social class and the way they shape the physical world.
Perhaps if Cameron hadn’t waited two decades, the picture would not have been swallowed up between films like “Mortal Engines” (2018) and “Ghost in the Shell” (2017) which address similar issues by means of a similar visual world. But in contrast to many of his colleagues in the industry who have embarked on the post-apocalyptic path, Cameron is not immersed in existential depression. Alita and her wide eyes express incorrigible optimism – a refreshing change on the big screen these days.