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. Not everyone’s a good member of society, however, and in Iron City, the center of the film, dangerous cyborg bounty hunters roam with official approval, they’re “Hunter-Warriors”. Floating high above the impoverished city is Zalem, a mysterious place where everyone is rumored to be healthy and happy. Needless to say, that’s not what it’s like in Iron City. Think ‘Blade Runner‘ meets ‘Elysium‘ and you’ll have the 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 finds the head and torso of a discarded female cyborg and to his surprise, 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). 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 game 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 some hunter-warriors in a dark alley. To her surprise, she finds that she has amazing skills as a warrior and fighter, which 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 Robert 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 for its effects much more than its storyline. This is a common challenge in big budget science fiction too, 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 badass 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.