Can we lose ourselves in a 300-year-old cyborg’s gaze? The question might admittedly be a rhetorical one. James Cameron, after all, is a man who made us fall in love with a 9-foot-something, cyan-coloured alien—the kind that procreates through USB-themed tails—in a film that went on to become the highest grossing motion picture of all time.
Alita, a passion project of his that’s reportedly based on a Japanese manga series, has been in the making for the better part of two decades now, and though Cameron only serves as a producer this time, all the pageantry we have come to associate with his brand of cinema is markedly in place. This time, even the protagonist’s eyes are larger than life.
The year is 2563, and everything’s a mangled heap. An apocalyptic event known as The Fall has reduced the countryside to an ungainly mess, with all sky cities (don’t ask) having fallen over the span of one night, save for Zalem. Down below, we have Iron City. “If you’re born on the ground, you stay on the ground,” is the philosophy that these so-called small towners live by. “It’s a rule that’s never broken.”
It’s a standard dystopian setup, by all accounts, but it’s a good thing director Robert Rodriguez knows how to make amnesia look endearing. Alternately, brushed aside by her adversaries as a ‘little flea’ and a ‘cupcake’, Alita is, in truth, “a total replacement cyborg with a very human brain.” She might have been endowed with the face of an angel, but hers is a body that’s built for battle. Rosa Salazar is excellent in the titular role, giving us an almond-eyed heroine (‘99’ in a previous birth, we’re told) who can’t quite recollect her own name but is very much at home when it comes to landing a well-placed punch or two. Rodriguez employs both computer-generated imagery and facial performance capture to tremendous effect here: cyborgs have never yawned this delicately.
Mahershala Ali plays a 26th century fox. Vector is a scheming entrepreneur and the brain behind Motorball, a savage, cut-throat sport that plays out like a futuristic lovechild of Formula One and rugby (there are pit crews here too). “No one is greater than the game,” this villain, who thrives on false promises, declares at one point, holding something that closely resembles a Bunsen burner. Ali plays this black shades-wearing villain with a cocksure swagger that’s a far cry from his almost fatherly turn in Moonlight. Christoph Waltz is unrecognizable as an elderly scientist with a heart of gold who first discovers Alita in a scrap yard, and it’s his relationship with his foster daughter that forms the emotional core of this film.
Like in Cameron’s Avatar, much of Battle Angel’s production design is suffused with a generous tinting of blue (some of the neon-lit streets here also reminded me of Roger Deakins’ camerawork in Blade Runner 2049), and the film benefits from some spectacular cinematography by Bill Pope. The set pieces towards the climax, in particular, are especially staggering, and the film deals with well-worn but relevant themes like aspiring to a higher ideal (and choosing when not to).
I only wish it was better written. There’s an occasional perfunctory feel to the proceedings, especially during the first half, and a lot of talk about force feedback, telepresence chips, and URM technology—whatever that’s supposed to stand for. As with all good villains, here too, Ed Skrein’s character pauses just long enough for the heroine to step in and save the day. A script like this strictly shouldn’t work – but this is a lushly-mounted film about angels (and a few demons, of course), produced by a man who is something of a cinematic demigod in his own right, and it’s hard not to gape.
“Let’s hear it for the battle angel herself,” the compere’s voice reverberates as Alita roller-skates out of the dugout for one final time. True that: it’s the summer of 99, ladies and gents. When this spunky trooper flies, so does the film. Perhaps that was on expected lines. Angels are known to have wings.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Shreehari H is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.