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Review: Alita: Battle Angel

February 15, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A passion project for producer and co-writer James Cameron, that is finally coming to the screen after years in development thanks to the help of director Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel is an often eye-popping science fiction spectacle that offers a seamless mix of live action and visual effects.

Based on the manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, that was already adapted into an anime film in 1993, Alita: Battle Angel takes place in the 26th century, a couple of centuries after an apocalyptic event referred to as The Fall.

The wealthy have moved to Zalem, a teeming metropolis that exists on a ship hovering just above the earth, and the rest of humanity lives below in Iron City, where the architecture is crumbling and many people have morphed themselves with machine parts in order to survive.

When Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a sort of surgeon for these cyborgs, discovers an abandoned cyborg core in the dump, he gives her a powerful new body and Alita (Rosa Salazar) is born. Alita is a wide-eyed and optimistic teen girl who soon falls in love with Hugo (Keean Johnson), a street-smart scavenger who dreams of escaping to Zalem, and wants to protect their relationship at all costs.

While she doesn’t remember anything of her past life, Alita discovers that she has innate skills as a warrior, having been heavily trained in the ancient martial art of Panzer Kunst, and becomes a bounty hunter as a way to make money. This puts her on the radar of Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), the former partner of Dr. Ido, and her new boss Vector (Mahershala Ali), who runs an extreme sporting event built around a deadly game called Motorball and wants Alita for his own purposes.

The success of Alita: Battle Angel ultimately rests on the shoulders of Alita herself, both in terms of Salazar’s performance and the incredible visual effects that have enhanced it, offering an impressive showcase for how far performance capture technology has come in the past decade. Alita is an entirely computer generated creation, and yet she interacts seamlessly with the flesh and blood actors around her, with the animators even having found a way to bring her big anime eyes to the screen in a way that appears natural.

The artists at Weta Digital have done a trememndous job of pushing forward performance capture technology, the same technology that Cameron already played around with a decade ago in his sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, and what they have done with it here is quite impressive. Yes, we can tell that Alita isn’t real, despite being near photorealistic in some shots, and yet we are able to completely believe and empathize with her character.

The film’s computer generated visuals have also been seamlessly mixed with practical effects, enhancing the film’s unique visual look. The production team went to the effort of building actual sets for Iron City at Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas, and this choice really pays off onscreen, giving this post-apocalyptic world a tactical and realistic feel, with an appealing steampunk aesthetic that gives us the impression it is stuck in time somewhere between the past and future.

There are elements of the story that feel underdeveloped, as it condenses a lot of mythology and world-building into an easily digestible two hour running time, and the supporting characters aren’t all equally fleshed out. The film also just sort of ends right in the middle of a scene, with the intention clearly being to leave things open for a sequel, but it doesn’t really give us the closure that we need for a standalone film. But Alita: Battle Angel is a visual feast first and foremost, telling an adequately involving story with a protagonist worth rooting for, while also dazzling us with special effects.

The film’s set-pieces are entertaining and benefit from being seen on a massive screen. The fight scenes, which mix together elements of martial arts and hand-to-hand combat, are well choreographed, and the Motorball competitions provide some of the most fun sequences in the film. I saw Alita: Battle Angel in IMAX 3D, and this really is the best way to see it, with the gigantic screen helping immerse us in this visually stunning world that Cameron and Rodriguez have brought to life.

Alita: Battle Angel is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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