The cinematic career of filmmaker James Cameron has been a fascinating one to say the least. He rarely outputs new films, usually just one or two a decade (especially more sparse in recent years), and yet when he does finally finish a movie, it breaks every known record imaginable at the box office. Which is all the more remarkable considering that most of his cinematic choices are usually unconventional. Make a sequel to a low budget action thriller with nearly quadruple the production budget and features heavy use of this new-fangled technology called CGI: welcome Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992). Make a movie about underwater explorers and have the entire thing actually shot under water in a massive, custom built tank; hello The Abyss (1997). Not to mention spending a then unheard of $200 million on a romantic movie set against the backdrop of the sinking of the Titanic, as well as nearly half a billion perfecting motion capture technology to have half his cast play giant blue, cat-faced aliens. But, despite all these uncompromising visions, James Cameron still has somehow managed to defy expectations every time, and then some. Titanic (1997) would go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars as well as become the highest grossing film in history, only to be toppled a decade later by his very next film, Avatar (2009), which is still the worldwide box office champ. The reason why Cameron’s films have the enormously successful run that they have is because the director always puts the most effort into everything, making sure that his movies are not released until it is ready to blow all our minds. But, given the increasing amount of time in between all of his movies, he also runs the risk of holding onto a project for too long, to the point where it’s window of relevancy and audience interest. Keep in mind, we are almost at the decade mark since we saw his last directorial effort with Avatar. Most other directors in that time, like Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino have directed three or more features, and have boldly experimented in new things, growing their talents as filmmakers. With Cameron tinkering so long on the same things, one worries that he’s running the risk of limiting his growth as a story-teller, leaving a lot by the wayside.
And one of those things that sadly has fallen victim to James Cameron’s long-gestating creative process is a project that he’s had in development for nearly twenty years called Alita: Battle Angel. Based on a Japanese Manga series published between 1990-95, the dystopian cyberpunk adventure was first brought to Cameron’s attention by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro not long after Cameron’s incredible success with Titanic. Cameron instantly fell in love with the manga and sought to develop it into a possible future project for him to direct. A domain name was bought as early as summer 2000 and the project was announced in active development in 2003. However, Cameron soon realized that the technology wasn’t available to do justice to the highly stylized world and characters of the manga comic, so the project remained in limbo for many years. Eventually, James Cameron opted to direct Avatar instead as his next project, using it as a testing ground for perfecting the motion capture technology that he hoped could eventually be used for Alita. Of course, Avatar made a huge leap forward for the technology, and with that, the possibility for Alita to finally go into production was possible. However, Cameron was once again side-tracked by his continued involvement in creating multiple sequels to Avatar, something which has taken up all his time these last several years. Still, he and producing partner Jon Landau always kept this movie in their back pocket, but eventually the time came to the point where they could wait no longer, otherwise they would lose their window of opportunity So, he had to make the tough decision to hand this pet project of his off to someone else. In stepped Robert Rodriquez, himself a bold DIY filmmaker in the Cameron mold. With heavily stylized, CGI enhanced films under his belt like Spy Kids (2001) and Sin City (2005), Rodriquez was more than capable of seeing Cameron’s vision to completion on the big screen, and the project finally went into production in 2016; 13 years after it was first announced. The only question is, did nearly twenty years of development result in a movie worth all that wait, or is it an anti-climatic finish to a waste of everyone’s time.
The movie is set in the far of future date of 2563, where the Earth has been long devastated by a cataclysmic war with the URM (United Republics of Mars) which has left most of the world barren and unlivable. One remaining community still lives on in the sky city of Zalem, which hangs over the vast sprawling Iron City where refugees from all over the world have gathered. There, cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds what remains of a long forgotten cyborg in the trash heap that’s grown from the refuse of Zalem. He discovers that while the cyborg’s body has long been destroyed, it’s core remains alive and intact, so he reconstructs a new body and brings her back to life. He gives the cyborg the name Alita (Rosa Salazar), which was the same name of his long deceased daughter. Though Alita enjoys her new lease on life, she remembers nothing of her past, and Ido keeps her sheltered in order to protect her, which she refuses to fully obey. After she sneaks out to spy on Ido’s late night activities, she discovers that he is a Hunter-Warrior, which is a class of highly skilled bounty hunters searching for humans and cyborgs alike with a bounty on their head. In the middle of a skirmish against one particularly ferocious cyborg named Grewishka (Jackie Earl Haley), Alita learns that she has fighting skills known as Panzer Kunst, which makes her exceptionally strong and lethal. She tries to become a Hunter-Warrior independent of Ido’s wishes, and she enlists the help of a scrap dealer named Hugo (Keean Johnson), whom she develops a crush on. Hugo dreams of reaching the paradise city of Zalem, and he convinces Alita that she would excell in the dangerous sport of Motorball, which she agrees to. However, the man in charge of the Motorball games is a ruthless businessman named Vector (Mahershala Ali) who’s been stealing all the best cybertronic equipment available in Iron City, with the help of Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), Ido’s estranged ex-wife. Upon discovering Alita, and what she can do, Vector and Chiren plot to have her killed and harvested for her advanced hardware, especially when put under orders from the master of Zalem himself, Nova.
Though the movie is directed by Robert Rodriquez, and features some of his trademark style particularly in the action scenes, make no mistake that Alita: Battle Angel is first and foremost a James Cameron flick. The attention to detail in the world building is very apparent and you can very clearly see the meticulous work that he put into crafting this world in even the most minute detail. But, like most other Cameron flicks, it’s clear that almost all the work went into the details of this world and almost none into the story itself. Let’s face it, James Cameron is director first and foremost and a writer second, and his lack of abilities as a screenwriter are even more problematic here. Cameron co-wrote the movie with Laeta Kalogridis (2004’s Alexander and 2010’s Shutter Island), with extra material added later by Rodriquez, and all the big flaws of Cameron’s writing style seen in all his other movies are likewise found here too. If you thought the romantic plot of Titanic was childish and cliche, you’ll find the one between Alita and Hugo even more so here. And if you thought that the political messages in Avatar were heavy handed and clunky, then you’re going to be smacked like a hammer to the head with the ones in Alita. Cameron’s strongest suit has never been his writing, often relying too heavily on his actors to salvage the words on the page. And yet, he still insists on writing all his movies himself. It becomes even more of a problem with the fact that Alita: Battle Angel is also the first time he has had to adapt a story from another source, which means he has to condense years worth of story into a short two hour length. The one saving grace for this is that Alita is not a bloated 3 hour extravaganza like some of Cameron’s other features, but it’s clear that in order to stream-line the story, he had to cut out huge chunks in order to get it to 2 hours, and that unfortunately affects the flow of the narrative. The movie has to deal with an immense amount of lore, and it unfortunately gets shrunken down into heavy exposition delivered consistently throughout the film. As a result, more important stuff like character development and atmosphere building are sacrificed. The movie builds this incredible world for us to see, but we’re never allowed to develop an emotional bond to it at all because the movie just plows through it.
Couple this with the fact that the movie unfortunately feels like it’s time has passed it by. That’s where the way too long development of the movie has hurt it’s chances of ever succeeding. James Cameron’s movie, had it gone into production early on, could have been ground-breaking and ahead of it’s time, because the world had yet to define a sense of what cyberpunk is as a style, which Alita could have very easily influenced. Sure there were influential films like Blade Runner (1982) on which Battle Angel drew heavy inspiration from, as well as memorable anime like Ghost in the Shell (1987) and Akira (1988) which also helped to define cyberpunk as a sub-genre. But, a live action Alita could have been this generation’s ultimate statement, and sadly it missed it’s window by pretty much a decade. Much like how the John Carter (2012) movie felt too derivative of other films like Star Wars (1977) and Dune (1984), which were ironically influenced by the original Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novels, Alita comes out in a time where movies that were influenced by the original manga have already come and left their mark and Alita only feels less original as a result. It’s not even the first manga to get the live action treatment, as other comics like Dragon Ball, Death Note, and Ghost in the Shell have made it to the big screen, and likewise fail every time. Alita’s timing honestly couldn’t be any worse, because the world has already at this point come to reject this style of movie all together. That being said, Alita: Battle Angel is a much better film than those, because at least James Cameron is approaching the material with a sense of reverence, and not just using it as a cash grab. But, had he put more urgency into the project from the beginning, and not waited patiently for the technology to catch up to his vision for how he wanted to make it, Alita could have been that breath of fresh air that might have taken cyberpunk into a whole new level of influence in cinema.
Story issues aside, the movie is lifted up immensely by it’s visuals. Cameron’s attention to detail is exceptional, as Iron City does feel like a genuine, lived in place. You could spend countless hours just picking out the large variety of architecture in all the buildings, which range from middle-eastern, to South-American, to inner-city America in influence; feeling very much like how a community of multi-national refugees would attempt to rebuild society in the aftermath of a broken world. And though his impact on the story is minimal, I do have to credit Robert Rodriquez on his direction of the action scenes, which are well choreographed in the same playful way that he uses to excess in movies From Dusk Til Dawn (1996) and Machete (2010). Of course, a lot of what people are going to be talking about with this movie is the use of motion capture used to create the cyborg effects on the characters. This is where the movie unfortunately provides some mixed results. It’s very clear that most of the work went into perfecting the look of Alita herself. The thing about her appearance in the movie is that she has to look believably real despite having these giant, anime style eyes, which instantly stands her apart from all the other characters. That almost makes it an even harder challenge than making the cyber-tronic body of hers appear authentic, because if you make the face look inauthentic, it falls into that creepy, uncanny valley territory. Thankfully, the effect is done just well enough to not be off-putting and you only occasionally take notice of the effect throughout the movie. I was, however, more impressed put into the work of another character named Zapan (played by Ed Skerin) whose human face appears on a completely exposed cyborg body, and the effect is incredibly effective and lifelike. And then there is the opposite end of a character like Jackie Earle Haley’s Grewishka, who might as well be a cartoon character. Even still, you can tell that the work was put into the visuals of this movie more than anything else, and that’s something to commend all the hard work for.
There’s also a mixed result from the movie’s cast as well. Again, the actors have to make do with some of that clunky Cameron dialogue, and some fare better than others. It helps that the movie includes three Oscar winners in it’s cast, and they are usually the ones that work best with the lines they are given. I did like Christoph Waltz’s role as Dr. Ido, taking a break from his more famous villainous work in other movies to show that he can indeed play a warm, nurturing mentor type as well. Unfortunately, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connolly are sidelined far too often in the movie to ever really give them an ample opportunity to dig into their roles. Mahershala perhaps fares a little better, given that he’s able to deliver so much menace with just a glance. Connolly seems particularly wasted, as we know she is capable of far more emotional range than what she is allowed to show here. Rosa Salazar on the other hand gets perhaps the hardest job in the entire movie as she has to carry the film, and do so underneath her CGI enhanced mask as Alita. For the most part, she succeeds. She does manage to make Alita likable enough to want to root for and it is impressive how well she is able to emote through all that motion capture, showing just how far that technology has come. Though Alita is not particularly well written, she nevertheless stands out as the movie’s most successful character, and she carries the movie well enough to keep it from falling apart completely. Unfortunately, it’s whenever the story-line with Hugo keeps butting in that the movie completely grinds to a halt. I’m sure that young Keean Johnson is a fine actor, but he is well out of his limit in this role, becoming the movie’s weakest element overall. You care so little about Hugo as a character, and I almost feel bad for the actor because there’s not enough natural charisma in the world to save him from his dialogue. At least with Titanic we had future Oscar winners like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to elevate Cameron’s ham-fisted script. Rosa and Keean unfortunately can’t match up, and that is why the movie falls apart as a result, since Cameron hinges so much on their expected chemistry.
Is Alita: Battle Angel a complete disaster? I wouldn’t exactly say that. I do have to praise the work that went into the spectacular environment of the movie’s setting and the work the CGI animators put into making the Alita model feel right. I’m sure that an art book of all the conceptual designs made during the film’s development would be absolutely stunning to flip through, especially considering that there is roughly 15 years worth of material to sift through. I also like how Alita falls once again into the James Cameron trope of a strong female protagonist at the center of most of his movies; descending from a line that includes Sarah Connor from The Terminator (1984), to Ripley from Aliens (1986) to Rose from Titanic. It’s only unfortunate that this movie came out perhaps a decade too late and is not as polished as some of the director’s more successful works. Had James Cameron not been sidetracked so much by Avatar and all it’s sequels, we could have has something truly breakthrough from the highly influential director, and something that would have really pushed his own career into interesting an unexpected directions. Not only that, but think about the impact that Cameron’s Battle Angel could have had on both the cyberpunk genre in film, as well as the influence of anime within the film industry. We might have been spared some of those awful anime adaptations in the last decade because Cameron would have set the bar high. Sadly, Alita: Battle Angel comes to us as a compromised vision, feeling disjointed between the visions of two filmmakers, and containing only a fraction of what it could have been. The world-building and visual effects are impressive, but there is no emotional attachment, and all that’s left are the glaring flaws which become more pronounced with James Cameron’s sub-par script. But, it could have been worse, as we’ve seen from the cash-grabs made by Hollywood over the years. Alita at least comes from the heart, as James Cameron is a true fan of what he’s adapting here. If only he hadn’t loved it too much to the point where it’s time had passed by.