And now we bring Robert Rodriguez Month to an end, and this time we are nowhere near Mexico. I mentioned in the ‘From Dusk Till Dawn Review that I would be looking at a movie based on a comic book. And I won’t be wrong, because Rodriguez actually did two comic book movies. One is 2005’s Sin City, based on the Frank Miller comic of the same name. The other being from 2019. This is Alita: Battle Angel.
Based on the Japanese manga called Battle Angel Alita in English (which ran from 1990 to 1995 under the name Gunnm, or “Gun Dream”), our story takes place in a futuristic world, where an aerial city called Zalem hangs above a city on the ground called the ‘Scrap-Yard’. Alita (played by Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg with amnesia who was rebuilt and given new life by Doctor Dyson Ido (Daisuke Ido in the manga, played by Christoph Waltz) after he finds her intact from the shoulders up in a pile of rubbish dropped through a dumping hole from Zalem. She starts to come alive and experience the world around her. Hugo, an Aladdin to this potentially weaponised and amnesiac Jasmine, takes the time to “show her the world”. He introduces her to a sport usually enjoyed in the street. Does some sightseeing on his motor-unicycle, and experiences the simple pleasures that are chocolate bars with her. However, the scrapyard’s residents are at the mercy of Zalem and their love for a violent and corrupt sport that involves augmented limb designs. And Alita’s memories, both in mental memory and muscle memory, hold the darkness that Ito is worried about.
Now for the nuts and bolts
If there is one thing I like about this film, it is the world that Director Rodriguez and Producer/Writer James Cameron (Yes, that James Cameron) have built. It is cyberpunk. Futuristic. But it is not like Bladerunner, which borrows from Tokyo. Instead, this film has a more American, especially Tex-Mex flavour, to it. The housing and interior designs have a more nostalgic flair that often gets lost in this genre. When can argue that it’s because it is built from the Junk dropped from above, but I beg to differ. It also manages to show a film where people appear to be happy, and they find happiness in small things, regardless of the city above them where the rich and most advanced are (possibly) living their best life. You might also notice that there are no phones. Perhaps this was an intentional choice. The film also makes a few changes to suit the focus. The manga has Alita named after Ito’s cat. Who passed away a few months before he found her. The film has made the name choice a little more intimate (not that I’m trying to offend anybody with their own fur baby). Rosa Salazar’s performance as Alita is excellent, and I’m reminded of her performance in the Amazon Prime show Undone a little bit. She is very good at playing stubborn, impulsive and conflicted characters.
The goals are kept simple for the characters; Alita wants to find out who she is, Dr Ido desires to keep her safe and pay the bills, and Hugo wants Alita and his survival intact. And Chiren wants to get back a life she lost when her daughter was killed. However, I do love the character interactions, from the convictions to the sense of humour, to the awkward moments of honour among the dishonourable. The music by Junkie XL is very good, but rather unremarkable at the same time. It is Dua Lipa’s ‘Swan Song’ that sticks out among the sounds.
The story, across all mediums; Manga, Anime and Film, can be simplified as a futuristic version of Frankenstein. You have Ido as Doctor Frankenstein building the monster, which is Alita, and then Alita tries to find answers on her origins while experiencing life. The film also takes a different direction from the manga in terms of tone, style and story. The manga is gritty. Possessing panels that would be too disturbing for cinema. Including character designs and actions that are nightmare fuel. So Rodriguez decided to create a more accessible story by making it a PG-13/12A, in which the tone is much lighter and focuses more on themes of Family, connection and relationships. Or, more specifically, a teenage girl rebelling against her dad, going into the bounty-hunting business, and going out with a bad boy with a heart. It plays heavily into being a teen movie, with Alita showing more anger in her moments of rebellion with Ito when she feels he is holding her back. We can also see how wonderfully naive she is, as everything simply excites her, while (nearly) everybody around her takes her for granted until she proves herself. It borrows a fair amount from the Anime OVA. Including characters who were only in that show (including Jennifer Connolly’s character, Doctor Chiren, Ido’s ex-wife. And Jackie Earle Haley as Grewiska, the villain who appears in the OVA and replaces Makaku, who is the first enemy in the manga). It also managed to use an old trick to get past censors that Rodriguez used in From Dusk Til Dawn – if you want to show blood and gore, make it any colour you want, but not red…and it worked.
What do I recommend about Alita: Battle Angel? Very simply, the world-building aspect and the character interactions. The world is very much alive and vibrant. The part that has us saying, “I wouldn’t mind exploring it”. The film is flawed when it comes to how the action is presented (despite its excellent cinematography), with the editing, at times, feeling a bit off or out of time when compared to how Rodriguez shot the action scenes in Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn. While I would have loved to have seen this as an anime being faithful to its comic – Robert Rodriguez (and James Cameron) managed to make a fun, energetic, colourful, creative, visually stunning and well-paced teen movie that does deserve a look. When compared to the other films I’ve reviewed – It is roughly as good as Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, though they are for very different audiences. And it is better than El Mariachi…and much better than Once Upon A Time In Mexico. So fair play Robert, – you are an underrated Comic Book Movie director. Hopefully you will be on board if there is a sequel.
CGI/Special Effects: *****
Overall Rating: ****1/2