In the 26th Century, Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the intact head of a cyborg in the scrapheap of Iron City, a slum that exits below Zalem, the floating city. After repairing the cyborg and giving her a new body, our hero Alita (Rosa Salazar) is born and must discover who she really is and where she comes from. Throughout her journey, she comes face to face with a batch of hunter-warriors, the devastatingly powerful Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), and love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson) in her attempt to reclaim her identity.
Based on the original 1990’s manga by Yukito Kishiro, directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-written and produced by film legend James Cameron, Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi blockbuster treat. It has long been fact that western adaptations of eastern material (more specifically Japanese manga) have never quite hit the mark; from the casting debacle of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell to the letdown of Netflix’s Death Note that same year, so you won’t be surprised by people's trepidation going into Battle Angel, but it must be said that this is easily the most faithful manga adaptation to date - and that may be down to the fact that it’s been twenty years in the making. Cameron first acquired the rights to the film in 1999 and had penned a script before shifting focus to creating Avatar. Since then, the film had been in limbo until Rodriguez signed on to direct, and we are so thankful that time, care and attention to detail were spent creating this visual delight.
With advancements in CGI technology and motion capture, it was possible to create a true version of Alita, although it’s not just the CGI that makes this character. That falls to Rosa Salazar who, even though her entire face is CG, gives an incredible portrayal that is one the of the most human performances we have ever seen. As the audience, we are welcomed into this post-apocalyptic world in a similar vein to the way Alita does - confused and innocent, not knowing who she is or where she came from. That is one of the main reasons why this film works - a story like this hits a lot of the same beats that we have seen before (which for some is a major downside), but Battle Angel adds a very human story to a cyborg that a lot of people can relate to.
While Rosa is the true star of the show, her supporting cast are strong as well. Christoph Waltz as Dr. Ido oozes a powerful parental performance, and his scenes with Alita allow us to slow down between the high adrenaline action to remind us where the heart of the story lies - in their relationship. He feels an instant connection to Alita and, after his troubled past, doesn’t want her to make the mistakes that he has made. Newcomer Keean Johnson as Hugo does a great job of being not only the love interest for Alita but also a gateway for her to truly understand what it is to be human.
The film is a beautiful assault on your eyes as the CGI teams at WETA Digital, DNEG and Framestore have shown exactly why Cameron was right to hold off for this long (we understand that some of that delay was not entirely him). Back when the first trailer dropped, audiences who were not familiar with the source material were instantly put off by Alita’s eyes, but, in order to be as close to the original manga, this had to be the case. The final product is absolutely breathtaking. Her facial expressions are so lifelike that you instantly forget that it’s not real. Furthermore, her foes and allies (especially Grewishka and Ed Skrien's angsty hunter warrior Zapan) are masterfully crafted and loyal to their paper counterparts.
The only downside to the film as a whole lies in the fact that a lot of the story beats are very familiar and, in some cases, have been done better elsewhere. The romance angle and the way that the film ends with a solid climax coupled with obvious sequel bait may be a turn off for some. But truthfully, there is plenty of content to thoroughly enjoy - the mindblowing effects, heart pounding action set pieces and core narrative are more than enough to satisfy mass audiences in this blockbuster gift. The real reason for a sequel bait ending is, for those in the know, because there is so much more of this world that we can explore due to the expansive source material. From the rest of Alita’s main journey to her spin-off story The Mars Chronicles, we can be sure to revisit the Iron City in the near future as long as the film does well commercially.
Alita: Battle Angel is a true blockbuster film that proves that time, patience and care when adapting an original source material does absolute wonders. Salazar’s version of Alita is one of the most human stories and performances in recent memory and holds the film together when it almost loses it legs towards the final act. Treat yourself to this visually stunning tale in IMAX.
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: ROBERT RODRIGUEZ / SCREENPLAY: JAMES CAMERON, LAETA KALOGRIDIS / STARRING: ROSA SALAZAR, CHRISTOPH WALTZ, JENNIFER CONNELLY, KEEAN JOHNSON / RELEASE DATE: 6TH FEBRUARY (UK), 14TH FEBRUARY (USA)