Even though (or perhaps because) his name doesn’t appear in end credits all that often, especially over the last 20 years, James Cameron has managed to make his boisterous brand synonymous with extreme technical achievements. He’s directed just a few features in the past couple decades, all of which have been either the biggest blockbusters ever or ambitious documentaries about plunging himself into death-defying depths. But for 2019’s Alita: Battle Angel, a longtime passion project for the director, he’s relegated himself to the role of co-writer and producer, handing the directing reins to Robert Rodriguez. Still, the trademark Cameron quality persists.
Identifying that extreme quality is key to appreciating Alita, a dystopian sci-fi action flick about an adolescent cyborg girl that awakens to discover she’s the greatest ass-kicker in all of bustlingly post-apocalyptic Iron City. The story is derivative, the genre tropes familiar, and the emotional beats manipulative, but Alita remains an eye-popping extravaganza that reaches for an apex of technical perfection so honestly and impressively that it’s almost overwhelming.
Based on a manga that Cameron wanted to adapt into a feature film back in the 90s, around the time that he was still making hits headlined by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alita: Battle Angel shares elements with other famous Japanese sci-fi titles like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. It’s set in a future where average citizens fight to get by in the shadow of war as a powerful upper class looks down from above.
Iron City is a melting pot metropolis situated beneath a floating city that dangles wealth and freedom as an unreachable carrot for the poor citizens below. Sure, there are those that still dream of ascending to the glowing world in the clouds, perhaps by becoming a lone champion in a violent contact sport called Motorball, but most have accepted their difficult lot in life on the ground.
Among them is Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), whose past is marred by tragedy and present is defined by performing cybernetic upgrades for struggling people as a sort of charity. He’s also a bounty hunter, which proves to be better at paying the bills. But when he finds a salvageable portion of a cyborg with a working human brain in a pile of wreckage, Ido decides to take it home, build it a fancy body, and bring the machine girl back to life with a name that is especially dear to him.
So, Alita (Rosa Salazar) is (re)born, awaking with slivers of personality but no memories. She becomes our eyes to this new world, learning as we do about the customs and rules that are considered commonplace in Iron City. While guns have been outlawed in an effort to quell any hope of violent rebellion against the upper class, villainous cyborgs still patrol the streets armed with swords and superpowered strength, ready to claim some heads for their mysterious boss.
An alleyway encounter between Ido, Alita, and some cyborg killers quickly reveals Alita’s astonishing martial arts skills, which make her a formidable fighter even though she’s merely a fraction of the size of hulking alpha cyborg Grewishka (Jackie Early Haley plus a ton of CGI). The fisticuffs draw a line in the sand and establish a rivalry that promises much more mechanically-assisted action.
Okay, that’s a lot of synopsis for a movie that’s built on such a prefabricated narrative track. Love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson) and Motorball-overseeing businessman Vector (Mahershela Ali) haven’t even been mentioned yet! Such is the nature of this movie, which wades through unoriginal territory, but pokes around in the usual spaces so immersively that there's no shortage of stuff to grab our attention. Even though cyborgs, sinister organizations, poseable heroes, funky modes of transportation, and a general sense of everyday claustrophobia are all on cinema’s usual laundry list of futuristic imagery, these world-building blocks are brought to life with a vibrant and energetic comic book flair.
Much of the credit must go to the special effects teams, which have pushed photorealistic animation to the limit here, and further thanks to Cameron for somehow temporarily transferring his spatially aware spirit to Rodriguez, who has previously been a decent action director, but several notches below a master like Cameron.
Rodriguez's longtime dedication to digital filmmaking and history of dabbling in technically demanding environments serves him well here, but it's still rather remarkable how comfortably he juggles the live-action and digital pieces that are in play. Most of the cyborg characters spend their time onscreen as human faces grafted onto complex configurations of computer-generated metal and the lifelike physical presence of these almost entirely animated characters is astonishing.
Alita has a more intact human look than most of her cyborg counterparts, mainly capturing Salazar’s likeness with some exaggerated features, but the character is still realized onscreen with tons of CGI and the actress in a motion capture suit. She’s a cartoon fighting other cartoons and yet these awesome avatars appear seamlessly integrated with their flesh-and-blood screen partners.
Being awestruck by the visual innovations and intricacies is the state in which Rodriguez hopes his audience will view the whole movie. Otherwise, the experience is easy to pick apart. In order to achieve his goal, the director maintains a constant flow of futuristic information that any fan of cyborg cinema should find palatable. There’s just so much to see and it’s all woven together with such meticulous precision.
Fittingly for a movie about rebirth, Rodriguez has been in a creative rut lately, making uninspired sequels and just generally milking dry his few good ideas, but Alita: Battle Angel is a robust reminder that he’s a solid showman at his core. Here, he’s more restrained than usual, which sacrifices some of his personal quirk in favour of a cleaner, more focused approach. While such a trade isn’t always a good thing, it benefits this movie’s ambitious commitment to looking so good. This is a tale we've seen before; we just haven't seen it executed quite like this. Call it the Cameron effect. A silly story can be elevated by immaculate imagery and while there's a ceiling to this type of entertainment, at least that ceiling looks glorious.