It’s hundreds of years in the future and society has collapsed. The new world is populated by a mix of humans, robots and half-robot cyborgs. Iron City, the center of the film, is awash in dangerous cyborg bounty hunters who roam with official approval, they’re “Hunter-Warriors”. Floating high above the impoverished city is the tech utopia of Zalem, a mysterious place where none has visited but everyone is rumored to live a life of comfortable luxury. Needless to say, that’s not what it’s like in Iron City. Imagine Blade Runner meets Elysium and you’ll have the basic setting.
The film opens with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) scrounging through mountains of garbage from Zalem for discarded robotic parts or other technology he can use: he repairs and rebuilds damaged cyborgs. He uncovers the head and torso of a discarded female cyborg and realizes that it’s not dead, just powered down. Taking the parts back to his laboratory, Ido rebuilds and revives the cyborg he names Alita (Rosa Salazar). Unfortunately, she has no memory of who she is or how she ended up in the scrap heap.
Soon Alita is up and mobile, exploring the city. When she meets street smart teen Hugo (Keean Johnson), they become fast pals, whether riding his one-wheeled motorcycle through the streets or him teaching her a popular street game called Motorball that’s somewhat akin to the combat-on-roller-skates in Rollerball. Their game’s a smaller version of the popular arena entertainment Motorball, the winner-takes-all elimination game played by the toughest and most dangerous denizens of Iron City.
As Alita grows in experience she begins to realize that the city’s a complex place and it’s not long before she is facing off against hunter-warriors in a dark alley. To her surprise, she has amazing skills as a warrior and fighter! This brings her to the attention of Nova (Edward Norton) and Vector (Mahershala Ali), the evil corporate overlords that rule Iron City. From his place high up in Zalem, Nova wants Alita dead, but she’s tough – she’s a battle angel – and killing her proves to be quite difficult. Evil hunter-warrior Zapan (Ed Skrein) and massive cyborg abomination Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) are her main nemeses, ceaselessly trying to tear her apart.
Alita is based on a popular Japanese cyberpunk manga series called “Battle Angel Alita” and it was Guillermo del Toro who brought it to the attention of director James Cameron. Cameron brought Richard Rodriguez on board and while Rodriguez ultimately sat in the director’s chair, Cameron remained producer and co-author of the final script. Alita’s been in production for over a decade and at one point Cameron put the film on hold to direct another sci-fi epic: Avatar.
Avatar, of course, broke box office records and excited a generation of film-goers with its lush, gorgeous visuals, stunning visual effects and terrific 3D. While fun and tremendously successful, Avatar was also shallow, with one-dimensional good guys, bad guys and a simplistic pro-environment, anti-industry story that any six year old could easily follow.
You can see the impact of Avatar on Alita: Battle Angel too. The computer generated effects are great, the world created is highly intriguing, the 3D effects are excellent and the story? Well, it zips along, but there’s precious little depth to any of the characters and it ultimately feels like a visual treat that will be remembered more for its effects than its storyline. This is a common challenge in big budget science fiction, where visual effects can dominate the budget and production of a film, producing shallow but beautiful movies.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Alita: Battle Angel. In fact, it was great fun and I am eager to go see it again. But precisely because of the visual experience, because of Iron City, Motorball, Alita’s evolution from naive teen to bad-ass and supremely confident warrior. As played by Rosa Salazar and then motion-captured and reimagined as the weirdly big-eyed Alita, she’s an engaging and heroic character. The film ends with an obvious sequel teased and I look forward to that when it’s released, and hope it’s going to be a faster process than Avatar 2.
If you love big budget science fiction with more attention paid to visual effects and computer graphics than a deep and thoughtful story, you’re going to love Alita: Battle Angel. Go see it. It looks amazing on the big screen. And if you can get to a 3D IMAX screening, that’ll be worth the extra money.