Alita: Battle Angel is based on a manga that James Cameron fell in love with sometime during the early ’90s. His career got completely consumed by truly awful but insanely successful films like Titanic and Avatar (he is already finishing off Avatar 2 and 3, with plans to do 4 and 5 , but I have a sneaking suspicion that Avatar 2 will bomb and 4 and 5 will be cancelled.) Cameron is very much in the late-stage-George-Lucas point of his career. Robert Rodriguez, who has been a long term fan and friend of Cameron’s, asked him whatever happened to the Alita project, and was soon brought in to look through Cameron’s script and notes. Cameron was pleased enough with Rodriguez’s work that he agreed to let Rodriguez take over as the film’s director.
In the London Q&A included on the Blu-Ray, Rodriguez explains the difference between him and Cameron: it’s their backgrounds, Rodriguez was a cartoonist, and Cameron an illustrator. Rodriguez can dream up the craziest wild ideas and not think about the science behind them, while it’s the opposite for Cameron—even at Cameron’s most fantastical, the worlds he creates are plausible. I’m far more in the Rodriguez camp in what I want to see on screen. So here it’s a meshing of two disparate approaches to cinema, but it works more often than not.
The film’s story is the usual dystopian robotics story of a world where the rich are in the clouds and the poor are on the ground of Iron City. Alita is discovered by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) in a dump. He puts her back together in a future where cyborgs have human brains, and she is dubbed Alita. Alita has no memory of her past and begins a quest to discover who she is. The film also has Motorball, which is the game of the future where cyborg gladiators fight one another, and citizens of Iron City cannot enter Zalem unless they become a Motorball champion. Motorball is a very obviously rip-off of Rollerball. There is a female-empowerment story thrown into the mix as well, which is very hot in Hollywood at the moment, to mixed results, and something is Cameron was a pioneer of with Aliens and Terminator 2.
It’s a film that isn’t going to be a game-changer in the ways Cameron’s films have been in the past, even though it’s better than most of them. It’s interesting been sold mostly as “the new James Cameron film,” although Rodriguez, who has always been a big favourite of mine, brings a lot to the film. His own unique style includes references to Latin culture, and it was unquestionably Rodriguez’s choice to cast a Latina actress, Rosa Salazar, as Alita. Both are directors somewhat stuck in the ’90s and the type of action/sci-fi films made then, and although it has state-of-the-art special effects, Alita feels like a film that would’ve been totally awesome in 1995 (but that’s not a bad thing.)
Alita seems to have found its audience in Asia, which essentially saved the film from being a massive bomb, to say the least, after it tanked in the US. The budget was somewhere between $175 million and $200 million which is around three times the highest budget of the most expensive film Rodrigeuz had made up to this point, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. It’s a shame that it flew under the radar, because it’s one of the more interesting and enjoyable blockbusters this year outside of the usual consistency of the MCU and John Wick franchises, especially as this year has been littered with some stinkers… Men in Black: International and X-Men: Dark Phoenix spring to mind.
Overall, it’s a fun throwback sci-fi/action film in the old-school Cameron mode, with Rodriguez’s own quirks intertwined into the DNA of the film. Rodriguez always can get a strong supporting cast, and this is no exception with Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley and a two-second cameo at the end from the humble narrator of some film called Fight Club. It’s a shame that it probably won’t spawn the franchise that Cameron and Rodriguez were clearly hoping for with the film’s final moments.
The disc includes around two hours of extras, including featurettes and one of Rodriguez’s legendary 10-minute cooking shows.