Although I enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s popular trilogy Spy Kids as a teenager, I always saw him as a director whose style was a bit over-the-top with a tinge of exaggerated drama which made his films feel like super-bowl commercials. Don’t get me wrong here. Rodriguez knew what he was doing and his movies had a knack for grabbing your attention with its cinematic camera-work and an undercurrent of humour that is his signature. Many of his characters felt as if they had jumped out of some pulp literature sold by that shady man round the corner, and yet the writing made them memorable. Years later while watching Sin City, where he had collaborated with legendary writer and graphic-artist Frank Miller, I saw a different director. Sin City had a richer, far more nuanced edge to it that I hadn’t seen before. Rodriguez’s style of film-making and Miller’s writing had come together into a fascinating graphic-novel adaptation.
Alita: Battle Angel is his second collaborative project, this time with visionary director James Cameron as the screenplay writer and producer. Based on Japanese manga artist Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk series Ganmu which translates to ‘Gun Dream’, Alita is based in a classist technarchical society where, after a great war, the last sky city of Zalem (derived from the Urdu word ‘Zalim’ meaning Oppressor ?) rules over a populace that lives down below in Iron city that’s filled with the scraps and remnants of the war. Dr. Ido, played by Christoph Waltz, is a cybermedic who finds a well-preserved cyborg head in a garbage dump during one of his scavenging runs. Fascinated by the long-forgotten technology in it, he brings it back home and fits it with a body. The cyborg wakes up as a young, teenage girl who doesn’t remember anything from her past. Ido names her Alita after her daughter who had passed a few years back. Through some intriguing incidents, Alita and Dr. Ido realise that she is very powerful for her build. This changes her outlook and she becomes obsessed about finding who she really is and what her past was. Meanwhile, Iron City’s overlord Vector (played by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) and his mistress Chiren (played by Jennifer Connelly) learn about Alita’s unique abilities. Word gets around to Zalem’s ruler Nova and he tasks Vector to bring the girl to him.
Building intricate worlds is a tricky business as we saw in the Peter Jackson production Mortal Engines. It was a fascinating idea that was ruined by too much attention that was wasted on establishing a multitude of characters at once without really helping the audience follow that ‘one arc’ that they could invest into. Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t commit that cardinal sin and Cameron’s knack of fluid story-telling has to be given credit for that. The narrative has very little exposition, and much is left for the audience to find out through Alita’s incessant curiosity. We learn things as she learns them which keeps us invested in her journey. Made by the same cutting-edge motion-capture tech (called Facial Performance Replacement) that Cameron’s team had developed for Avatar, Alita looks amazingly real. Sure CGI-veterans like you and I can make out the subtle differences in her facial expressions but her movements are as natural as can be, and every facial quiver from chuckles to laughter to fear to anger has been captured with intricate detail.
Cameron had already started story-boarding for the film way back in 2010 but we are not sure when Rodriguez became a part of the project. Despite having the towering figure working beside him, you can see Rodriguez’s marks throughout the film. The interactions between Alita and her friend, and later love-interest, Hugo capture the girl inside who is discovering herself. The skating-rink scene somehow reminded me of Spy Kids which also had a bunch of competitive kids with access to some mind-blowing tech. The sprinkling of humour throughout the film also essentially feels Rodriguez and adds a lot of character to what would otherwise have been an intense story. Cameron’s hand, however, tones down Rodriguez’s over-dramatization and keeps the best parts of his style in the mix. Together they build a stunning world with a compelling narrative to boot. The arc remains steadily hooked to Alita and you are invested in her big, expressive eyes within the first act itself. I would not talk about the nail-biting action sequences here and let you experience them for yourself.
Rosa Salazar, the actor performing facial performance capture for Alita, brings terrific authenticity through her voice and facial expressions of course. Christoph Waltz creates the perfect balance as an industrious cyber-engineer and a father who has never quite gotten over her daughter’s death. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly give measured performances as the antagonists with a singular mission. Keean Johnson as Hugo shares great chemistry with Alita and grounds the character showing her what it means to be human.
The story of Alita is not over yet and the film is set to return with a sequel where our titular hero would come face to face with her arch-nemesis, Zalem’s Nova. Having said that, I am in love with how the character has evolved. Alita: Battle Angel could well be Rodriguez’s best film. This film was a long time coming but I am so glad that this collaboration could materialize. Needless to say, I am excited for the sequel and how Alita would grow up to it.