ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – 3D

  • Release Date: 8/2/2019
  • Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley.
  • Director: Robert Rodriguez

Alita: Battle Angel has been in the making for 20 years. As was the case with Avatar, when the idea was conceived for the first time by James Cameron, he felt that the technology to make it was not available. So he held on to the script and waited for the technology to catch up. In the meantime, he got obsessed with Avatar and as is clear he will be making Avatar films for the next many years. However, Cameron was equally in love with Alita but just didn’t have the bandwidth to make it himself. So what could he do? He went for the next best thing at his disposal and brought aboard director Robert Rodriguez who made the fantastic Sin City film based on Frank Miller’s black and white noir of the same name. Cameron wrote the script that was then entrusted to Rodriguez to bring to life. Thus Alita: Battle Angle is both Rodriguez and Cameron’s baby. This fact made me wait for this film with bated breath. I ended up reading all the major volumes of the Manga Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro in preparation for the film. I watched it at an IMAX theater just so that I got the best in terms of visuals and sound. However, after all this and more I am not exactly ecstatic about the end result that is this film.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on the first 2 volumes of the manga* (*a Japanese term for comics) and brings in certain elements from the 3rd and 4th volumes as well. There is at least one character that was not in the manga but was conjured up in the preposterous anime adaptation of the Manga. The film relates the story of Alita (Rosa Salazar), a cyborg who is discovered in a dilapidated condition by Dr. Ido (Waltz) in the scrapyard under the floating utopia Zalem. She is brought back to life by Dr. Ido but she has no memory of her past. As luck would have it, Alita reacts to certain situations in manners that show signs of an extraordinary past as she packs off gruesome mercenaries using a fighting technique known as “Panzerkunst” that was thought to have been extinct for 300 years. Alita forms a romantic alliance with Hugo (Keean Johnson) who tells her about his dreams of going to Zalem. Dr. Ido also has a secret to keep and Hugo is also not what meets the eye. With Alita’s extraordinary prowess exposed owing to her histrionics, a shady man by the name of Nova sends in all at his disposal to kill off Alita. Why he wants her dead? Who is Alita and what is her past? What is Zalem? Who is Nova? All these questions and a lot more are answered throughout the course of this film.

The visuals and the action of the film are absolutely spellbinding. The manner in which the character of Alita is rendered is almost hard to believe. I have never seen this kind of depth, richness, and texture in a fully animated character before. If it was not for her highlighted eyes, it would be impossible to tell that she was not for real. Alita was not the only one. The rendering of some of the villains all of whom are Cyborgs was insanely cool. I just loved what they did with the character of Zapan played by Ed Skrein. He felt even more real than Alita. I tried to find a crease in the sticking skin of a face of his on the metal but I couldn’t. The same can be said about the character Grewishka played by Jackie Earle Haley who is practically unrecognizable. In the manga, the character goes in a different path but here they did a good job with the mashup of the character’s history with Nova and his own past.

The Motorball Sports sequence that forms the basis of 2 volumes of the manga is a mere highlight here but is done beautifully. It may be limited but the kind of moves that Alita is shown making in addition to the physical action that is on display is bound to feel like a punch to the solar plexus for many. The brawl in the Bar is wonderful as well but for me, the best action sequence was the one that happens between Alita and Grewishka in the innards of the Iron City* (* The name of the Scrapyard city below Zalem where the story unfolds). There was a lot of character to this action sequence and it ends in a way that no one can prepare you for.

A word about the 3D. This is the kind of film that is worthwhile to watch in 3D. Robert Rodriguez was one of the earliest proponents of  3D in Hollywood and he knows how best to use it. It does add a lot to the overall visual quality and spectacle of the film. It is highly advisable to watch this film in the largest screen with the loudest and best sound possible.

All that is left to speak about is the ensuing drama and story that takes us from one action sequence to the other. One way of approaching the story would have been to go panel for panel from the Manga and it worked for Robert Rodriguez in his Sin City adaptation. However, here James Cameron tries to keep parity with the Manga but mashes up the characters and story and tries to bring his own take to the whole matter. That didn’t quite work for me as it invariably took away a lot of the emotional punch that the actual story had to offer. It also made some of the actions of the characters feel awkward and unmerited.

I felt that Alita: Battle Angel would be the manga adaptation that would for the first time transcend the border between the Japanese culture and the American rendering of it. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case here. Rodriguez changes characters and settings partially that felt very halfhearted in a lot of situation. Also, the manner in which some of the characters are in the manga is not presented in a similar way here which does affect the tone and feel of these characters. I would have said that this film would work better if someone hasn’t read the manga but that is also not the case as it doesn’t ease you into its strange world but sets up everything in a jiffy. So I could relate to a lot of things because I had read the manga.

Apart from Rosa Salazar who is great and Christoph Waltz who could practically stand and repeat a word and would still be awesome, none of the other actors has anything substantial to do. Mahershala Ali is wasted in a role that could have been done by anyone. Jennifer Connelly was unnecessary. Ed Skrein felt like that he would be great but just didn’t get enough screen time. Keean Johnson was plain irritating and there was no chemistry between him and Rosa Salazar which really hit the believability factor of the plot point on which the whole film anchored. This is really unfortunate as the manga is as much about the action as it is about the characters and their interim drama. Even smaller characters have deep-rooted ethos and well-defined arc. Whose idea it was to show Koyomi as a grown up?

Here is a film that would have been great had it just stuck to the mood, feel and story of the source material. All they needed to do was Americanize it and it would have worked. Unfortunately, Cameron and Rodriguez end up tattered between whether to do a wholehearted Japanese adaptation or use the concept and make their own version of the story.  The end result is a film that may be spectacular to look at but is shallow and under-cooked in its treatment of a rich and highly layered source material.

Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)

 

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