I’m not familiar with Yukito Kishiro’s manga series, and coming into the film “Alita: Battle Angel” blind with my husband (who got bored with the manga series), I was delighted at seeing a petite woman transform from curiously innocent to a determined fighter (as much as I am against violence). This. is a step forward in animation with performance capture changed and augmented to create a full character, Alita, woman warrior cyborg.
The world created by Kishiro was one of a multicultural, multiracial dystopia and that’s pretty much what we get with James Cameron and Jon Landau as producers and Robert Rodriguez (“El Mariach,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “Spy Kids”) as director. In the pre-recorded panel at a 31 January 2019 preview screening in Century City, Rodriguez characterized his style as being “whimsical” but added that when Cameron brought him on board, Cameron insisted that everything in Alita’s world feel real. While Cameron’s “Avatar” was in an unreal world in a different universe, Alita’s world is Earth after the cataclysmic war, called the Fall. On the Earth below is a scrapyard where a man, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), finds the suspended bio-core of an old cyborg. Taking her back, he gives her a body, one that was lovingly built for his daughter, Alita. (Sorry, there is no cat).
Alita, we later learn, was the daughter of both Ido and Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly with enough black eye makeup to make her unconvincingly West Asian). Chiren has left Ido but works for the evil Vector (Mahershala Ali in a role that has nothin
g to do with graphic design). Vector promises Chiren that if she does certain things, he’ll get her to Zalem/Tiphares, the last floating city which we never actually see inside of. Instead, Zalem looms above like metallic unattainable heaven.
Chiren is, of course, not the only person who’s been promised entry this mysterious floating city. For one, the champion of the gladiator-like warriors in the national spectacle called motorball gets a free ride to the world above. Motorball is a combination of roller derby and racing. The goal is to get the ball into a hole but involves other players trying to steal it with a brawling style that combines the blood lust hockey fans howl for and the speed of in-line skates on an oversized luge course. For the second offer, you’ll have to wait because that’d be a spoiler.
Once awakens in her new body, Alita remembers nothing. Everything is a blank. Ido runs a clinic for cyborgs with his trusty nurse, Gerhad (a severely underused Idara Victor) and he dotes on Alita and his love is purely paternal and not the least bit creepy. Yet there is a creepy side to him and he wanders out at night on secret missions. Ido warns Alita not to go out at night because there are assassin and brutalizing harvesters of cyborg mechanical parts.
Alita, with her alarming large eyes that remind one of another movie (“Big Eyes”), attracts the attention of Hugo (Keean Johnson) and they cute-meet. Hugo is supposedly the guy with street smarts, but Johnson has the cleanest cut face that makes this hard to imagine. Hugo introduces Alita to a street version of the gladiator game of motorball and Alita is, of course, a natural. What exactly was this fresh-faced gal doing in her other life.
Hugo is open-minded enough that he doesn’t mind the hard-body (hers) to soft-body (his) romance when questioned by his friend Tanji (Jorge Lendeborg) whose gal is Koyomi (Lana Condor).
Condor, who was born in Vietnam, is the only East Asian person with a substantial role and she is the romantic interest’s best friend’s main squeeze. That is: She’s a sidekick’s romantic side. Otherwise, despite the contents origin in Japan, the Asians are relegated to background and evil menace. An Asian person isn’t the first to die, but one does die early on.
Most notable is that Ido’s first name is changed from Daisuke, a Japanese given name, to Dyson (which reminded me of a vacuum cleaner). While Waltz is touchingly sensitive and intelligently emotional in his interactions with both Alita and Chiren, would it be so hard to imagine someone like B.D. Wong, someone who has often played intellectual doctor roles (“Law & Order: SVU” and the Jurassic Park series)?
Compared to Alita, Salazar is a more solidly built woman. One wonders if that kind of build wouldn’t be nice for a super hero, more like the new Netflix version of She-Ra, where super heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Yet the slenderness of Alita emphasizes the enormity of the mix-match between bodily masses.
Because real sets were used instead of extensive CGI, there’s a real-lived in feel to the scenes at Ido’s clinic. The creation of Iron City is also a triumph, mixing old world and contemporary architecture at a varying state of decay, there’s enough dirt and clutter for the feel of an urban downtown with a life that’s still recognizable and relata ble, particularly the clever inclusion of both cats and dogs, but especially the dogs because of one of the people who aids Alita has cyborg dogs (this was part of the original manga series as well).
Overall, the action scenes are impressive and the emotional content is well-balanced The a good, well-paced origin story that pushes the art of animation and performance capture and inserts it seamlessly into a live action movie. “Alita: Battle Angel” opens on 14 February 2019.