Technology continues to permeate our culture in new ways with each passing day, and futurists for years have theorized how advancements in robotics and prosthetics will eventually lead to a merger of man and machine. Many writers have played off of these ideas for decades; one work in particular by Yukito Kishiro has fascinated manga and anime fans since the early 1990s. Known in Japan as the manga, Gunnm (Battle Angel Alita in the English translation), it was a nine-part story of Alita (or Gally in the original manga), a cyborg found in a scrap heap that retained a living human brain and no recollection of her past. Dropped down from a city in the skies and rebuilt by Dr. Ido, the machinist who found her amidst the refuse below, she sets out to discover who she is and what she is capable of.
While there are various differences from the source material that arise with the feature film adaptation I review here (many of which that make the story even more involving), what we do get is an amazingly rendered sci-fi epic that is an incredibly well-made extension of the ideas and creativity that came with the story created almost 30 years ago. After languishing in development as a future directorial project for James Cameron (who is credited in this film as a writer/producer) following him full-on devoting himself to extending his own Avatar-universe of films, the project was turned over to Robert Rodriguez as director. This was a very wise decision, as he is one of the most economical directors out there, and a project like this would only work if it showed every cent spent on the screen. In addition, while he seemingly prefers to do his own thing and mostly creates his own material for the films he directs, he excels at adapting high concept properties when he gives himself the opportunity to do so (i.e. his Sin City films). Here, he shows his expertise in handling an ambitious project with great precision, and while I’ve not reviewed any of his other films on the site, rest assured that I felt this film was one of the better he’s done in years.
As mentioned earlier, we follow Alita, played through motion capture by Rosa Salazar. I’m not familiar with her work, but she did a great job as the lead, as amnesiac-laden protagonists can be somewhat harder to fully connect with (I’m looking at you, Captain Marvel). While there are countless people in special effects who made the anime-eyes of Alita and her physicality a success on-screen, Salazar gave them a great canvas to work on; it all shows in the final product. Dr. Ido is played by the always magnificent Christoph Waltz, and while he sometimes looked out of his element in some of the action scenes, he gives the film some much-needed heart throughout. Other characters like Dr. Chiiren (Jennifer Connolly) and Vector (Mahershala Ali) factor heavily in the story, but I’ll leave their involvement up to your discovery. Each does great work in their roles; it’s especially good to see Ali, who is doing incredible work and winning all the awards, effortlessly move from films like Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse and Green Book to this.
Further populating the world of this film are people and cyborgs outfitted with robotics galore. Some may have a limb missing and replaced with a metal apparatus; others have gone about changing themselves from bottom to top with machinery. While many change their bodies to survive, others do it for purposes of advancement. The primary sport in this film’s world is called Motor Ball, and it factors heavily in the plot. Think Rollerball with cyborgs, and you are there. It’s a brash, violent display of winner takes all competition, and it’s that drive to enhance oneself that creates the near-monstrous levels of change we see in so many characters on-screen. Couple that with a society on the planet’s surface that has no real law-enforcement, aside from bounty-chasing “hunter-warriors” who vigilantly take down those doing harm to others, and you now have a full-blown techno-western. Just as most characters are a mixture of man and machine, this film is a mixture of so many things that, if you can take it as its own thing, you will be drawn in by what it is presenting.
The special effects are especially mesmerizing to watch, as we are only now at a point where filmmakers can effectively make what is needed here in a manner that will age well into the future. For the most part, I can’t think of anything here that doesn’t “work”. Whether we are talking about the lithe figure that is Alita, the human in face and form Zapan (Ed Skrein, above), or the hulking behemoth, Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley, below), all mesh together on-screen and work together to create a live-action world we honestly haven’t seen before. Performance capture and the melding and stretching of skin upon metal all work to make something that extends the detail of the work done in something like the Transformers franchise into a story with more attachment on an audience level as it deals with humans testing the limits of what it means to be just that.
The violence of the story and the unsettling nature of some of the characters may not be for all, but denying the power and effectiveness of the images on display is difficult. There is quite a bit of world-building that is necessary for a film like this, and while some of it feels clunky in execution, by film’s end, we have been transported to a time and place that feels unique to itself, yet offers us reason to care. That’s ultimately effective sci-fi/fantasy storytelling, so that makes the film a success. In addition to the clunk I mentioned is a love story that would have been better had Alita had a more capable actor to work off of. The performance of Hugo, played by Keean Johnson, just didn’t work very well. The film gives us moments that are visually impactful and create moments for a relationship to blossom, but it never fully materialized to me. The half-baked romance didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it did take away from the experience in ways that mattered.
In regards to content, there is violence, and while it isn’t red-bloodied gory in its usage, there are enough moments to wince as characters we love and hate are in pain throughout. I thought that the language was going to be minimal until the lead character dropped an F-bomb that felt entirely unnecessary. Sexual content isn’t a primary concern, even as there are some moments of Alita experiencing sensory touch that could have went into some very uncomfortable directions. Thankfully, they didn’t. Spiritual content isn’t addressed directly, but allusions to Alita being an “angel”, dropped down from the sky to help others, felt as if they were reflections of Biblical elements, even if done so in a purely cursory manner. The film gave me more to think about in reference to spiritual content than what it explained directly, and I imagine it would be that way for any looking for parallels.
All-in-all, I appreciated the film. As probably my favorite anime adaptation up to this point, it was thoroughly entertaining, and while character names and plot elements should prepare anyone for a certain modicum of cheesiness throughout, the film never fell out of my good graces while watching. Be prepared for several unbilled cameo roles that honestly surprised me while watching. I’ll leave them unbilled here as well. There is a lot of material here that can be furthered in potential sequels, and I was wrapped up enough in what I saw to want to see more. The uncanny valley effect never crossed my mind, as the special effects were truly spectacular in making me believe that a humanoid android could be real. Was it perfect? Absolutely not, but for all fans of sci-fi and action films, I would fully recommend this film, as it potentially could be the start of an exciting franchise of films that will surely test the limits of filmmaking, as this film does itself.