It is easy to argue that Alita: Battle Angel has had the most “Production Hell” baggage to deal with of any major sci-fi movie of the last five years. Originally started as a project in 2000 by 20th Century Fox, five years after the comic had been a smash in Japan and relative obscurity outside of the global anime/manga scene, it had James Cameron as its producer since 2003. Finally shot under the direction of Robert Rodriguez under great secrecy at the end of 2016, the first trailers declaring a July 2018 release were circulated in December 2017, only to then have the movie go quiet till it resurfaced mid-2018 with a heavily de-mangafied look for Alita and a release date of the “dump month” of February 2019. So, has Cameron finally produced something well inside his wheelhouse that could only be justified as $200 million “passion project”? Well, maybe. But they’ve produced a charming little emotional ride and a fully realised world, regardless of what the box office says.
Alita: Battle Angel is a story about loss and love. Alita has lost her memory, Dyson has lost his child, Hugo has lost his way in the world, and most of the characters who aren’t 6-foot-plus tall murder-loving rampaging cyborgs have lost something that they hold dear to themselves. But it’s losses that they are trying to deal with in what they consider to be a positive way, even whilst having the problems of a recovering and corrupt world to deal with. Whilst the characters are not overly complicated, and the script not too wordy or heavy, all the actors give it their best and bring just the right amount of stoicism to it all. There are no outstanding performances to mention, because everyone does just a good a job as each other. There are also few massive or overbearing declarations of love, even in the most tragic of moments, just empathy and deeds.
There is also, because of the above-mentioned cyborg death machines, a lot of violence. A surprising amount for a 12A film, with assorted limbs and heads and body parts being sliced, hacked, melted, battered, and even blended on camera in some very energetic and well-realised sequences. Yes, this is pretty much all happening to what are signposted as synthetic bodies, and the majority of blood spilled is blue: but even then, it’s made very clear that there are people in the heads and some of them get very flattened. But if you or your kid are good for that then there are bar fights, street brawls, high-speed chases, and even the i“possibly could even work as a real thing” futuresport of Motorball (think a very violent roller derby with motorised in-line skates and no health and safety considerations) to watch people having their arses kicked around in. All of this in a world that has an aesthetic combination of 1890’s Paris, contemporary Middle-east Bazaars, and Mad Max where all the weirdos settled down and got mortgages. Yeah, it’s a bit lawless and everything is covered in dust because it just looks cooler that way, but you could actually imagine people living there so the more outlandish elements of the plot work that little bit better.
As for the plot itself: well, it’s there and it’s functional and you can see roughly how it’s going to shape out in about the first half-hour. The biggest change of gear in all of it is that the arse-kicking hero is a girl (although, given how anyone can be grafted onto a JCB, that isn’t an issue that gets brought up much), and the male love interest is dealt with as if he was the prize at the end of it all. Other than that, it’s basically all the beats as and when you need them. Not a bad thing in and of itself, just that if you nip out to the loo during its two hours, you’ll be missing emotionally charged moments rather than complicated plot points. This is possibly due to the story covering so much ground, going through four books of the manga run, and the writers stripping everything down to its essence. Some won’t like that, but it works if you let it wash over you the meat here is the feel of the characters and the look of the place, rather than the gristle of how it all came to be. The only point where this causes problems is with the ending, all three of them. For something that is supposed to be a trilogy they really did overstuff the final 20 minutes with what they could have saved for the follow-up and then forgot to put “to be continued” as an explainer for the lack of solid resolution.
Don’t go if you want the next Blade Runner or Contact, it’s not that deep. Maybe go if you are a fan of the original story and can sit without moaning about what was left out. Do go see this on the big screen if you like sci-fi beat ‘em ups and a Blade Runner city in Kansas or you go all gooey-eyed at masterclasses in what CGI can do these days. Or if you have any kids, especially daughters, that you want to get hooked on Cyberpunk and to start asking questions about full-body cybernetics.