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Saturday, 2 March 2019

Alita: Battle Angel - A real hero and a real cyborg warrior

"I do not standby in the presence of evil!"

Based on the Japanese cyberpunk manga Gunnm, or better known as Battle Angel Alita, and also on the 1993 anime adaptation simply titled Battle Angel, this movie takes a very bold approach to remake it for the western audiences, while trying to retain much of the core of its origins. Produced and written by James Cameron as a longtime project of his, even before Avatar, Alita: Battle Angel follows the original story conceived by Yukito Kishiro very closely. Too closely, I might say. The directing part went to Robert Rodriguez of all people and I really have some irks to say about that. In preparation for this review, if I may call it so, I tried my best to find both the manga series and the animated movie just to make sure I have the basics laid out. Surely, a movie needs to stand on its own, but I needed to know if it indeed does and whether some of my suspicions are true. So buckle up, 'cause we're going on a complicated ride!

Let's start with the most important aspect of any movie: its story. I have to hand it to producers who are bold enough to take on not only a comic book adaptation to live action movie, at least for the most part of it, but also translating a completely different culture's means of storytelling.
If there's one major issue when adapting a different medium to the big screen it's that the director, especially, needs to know what to keep and what to leave out, but also what works and what doesn't. For example, frequent dialogue bubbles that help the characters to spout exposition are useful in a comic book since there's so much you can storyboard in some 20 odd pages of static visual content. However, in a movie that's 2 hours and 20 minutes long... you can just show it or maybe hint enough to let the audience fill in the blanks. That being said, the movie has a ton of expository dialogue, at least in the first half when they basically set up the world.
I won't help myself to make the obvious comparison with the anime, at least, and it's true that the two part OVA also had a lot of needless exposition. But I do understand why there's a need for it. The Battle Angel lore is rich and intricate and it goes way beyond just the small scale of Alita's story in the movie. It's only unfortunate that various characters keep repeating the same information when they just want to fill in with even more information. The problem I have with this is that the movie leaves little to interpretation, imagination or mystery. They wanted the audience to know as much as possible, and still there's much more to tell, as the ending is left open for a sequel, in James Cameron's own tradition, since he was the one who wrote the script. Don't be put off by that, though, there's a clean cut narrative that leaves you wanting for more in a really good way and the continuation is well worth the wait, I do believe.
But on to the point, the movie's story is generally similar to that of the manga, but mostly follows the OVA (Original Video Animation), with the exception that for some reason Alita's name in the anime is Gally and it is never mentioned where that name comes from. As an example (that I promise won't spoil anything important) of how the movie built upon elements in the manga, Alita's name was originally Ido's dead cat and nothing more of it, but in the movie it was actually the name of Ido's dead daughter and everything flows perfectly from this small change. Don't worry, this is something you figure out in the first few minutes. Doctor Dyson Ido, a brilliant and charitable physician for people with robotic implants, finds the torso of a mysterious cyborg with a human brain. He takes her in, gives her a new body and a new name: Alita. She has no recollection of who she is or why she fell from the last floating city, Zalem, but she's very eager to discover the new world. The decrepit Iron City, however, is ruled by corruption and violence. Murderers creep at night and hunter warriors roam the city for their next target, while most fight for a chance to live in the city above. Alita takes us in this journey through her big, intentionally uncanny eyes, as we witness her transformation from innocent girl struggling to find out who she is and where she belongs to the powerful warrior cyborg she was meant to be. Her arch is the most poignant in the movie, but there are also other supporting characters with their own story arches that inevitably collide with each other. Alita befriends Hugo, a young man who desperately tries to escape to mysterious Zalem by helping a shady mobster named Vector. Things are not what they seem and both Alita and Hugo end up caught in a battle for survival that culminates in tragedy and a vengeful motivation that's worth the wait for a sequel.
Rosa Salazar plays the titular character behind all that CGI, but she does an extraordinary and fun job conveying a realistic character that's actually a cyborg with big, expressive eyes. Alita easily becomes relatable, especially with young people, girls and boys alike, who know there's something strong within them, they just need the courage to express it. It doesn't have to be ninja fighting skills or inhuman athletic abilities, but just the will to stand for what you believe. Rosa Salazar's performance is amazing and most importantly memorable. I think she may have just had the breakthrough role in her relatively short career of playing supporting characters, most notably in young adult movies Insurgent and Maze Runner. I hope for a bright and successful career as leading roles for her from now on. As for the rest of the cast, well it's chock full of great names such as Christoph Waltz as Dr. Ido, Jennifer Connelly as Chiren, Mahershala Ali as the (kind of main) antagonist Vector, an actor who has built up quite a name for himself lately and rightfully so, Ed Skrein as the hunter warrior Zapan, Jackie Earle Haley as big baddie Grewishka, which by the way I didn't know it was him up until after I saw the movie, to my shame, Keean Johnson as Hugo, there was also Jeff Fahey, Casper Van Dien, Michelle Rodriguez in small roles and Edward Norton as Nova, THE actual main bad guy behind it all. Everyone did a great job with a decent translation of manga to movie.
Robert Rodriguez, however, is a mixed bag for me. His directing credits range from the amazing El Mariachi and From Dusk Till Dawn to Spy Kids and Machete. What I mean is that his directing range is all over the place and a gamble. Which is why I think he's mostly reliant on his crew. Thankfully, he did a good job on Alita: Battle Angel. He even built a real set on his Austin studio grounds and you can really tell in the movie that's a real deal set and very little green screen used. The cinematography, handled by Bill Pope who also worked on The Matrix series, is serviceable. It's not as stunning as Blade Runner 2049, but I will place it in the same category as the 2017 Ghost in the Shell movie, except with more original visuals. Iron city looks splendidly cyberpunk and gritty and I can't wait to see how they create the floating city in the follow-up. Hopefully that's gonna get made. CGI is entirely handled by James Cameron's own company WETA and they've done a fantastic job in my opinion. Even if sometimes Alita's features look too uncanny, only WETA could've brought this awesome character to life so convincingly. Music is helmed by composer Junkie XL who was also in charge of Mad Max: Fury Road's awesome soundtrack, but it's nothing that memorable here. I have to say it's eerily reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell's soundtrack. I mean, probably too similar, but hey... who am I to say?! Alita's main theme is aptly called Swan Song and is performed by Dua Lipa, It's a very good song. Check it out!

In conclusion, I think Alita: Battle Angel is a worthwhile movie with a heavy story, although perhaps too heavy and convoluted, with maybe too much emphasis on exposition. It's very worthy of its cyberpunk pedigree, with beautifully shot action scenes, colorful characters and scenery, but most importantly one of the most deserving female action heroes in recent years, right alongside Wonder Woman. If you want to have fun and immerse yourself in one insane roller-coaster of glorious robot fights, you need to check out Alita: Battle Angel!

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