Alita: Battle Angel is a film that didn't try to do too much. You should know this going in. You may even have read it in this article's headline.
Oh sure, it recreates a world that previously had the unlimited budget of pen and paper – and decades to explore it. This is a film that benefits from the biggest and IMAX-iest of screens. And we only really get to see the half of it. We begin in Iron City's trash heap and in many ways we never really leave it. This is a city that lives on junk, transforms it, making it not only part of the structure of housing and vehicles, like many a slum city, but integrating the technology into the very people who live there – until many are far more machine than they ever were human. The line is blurred and there is no attempt to unblur it. And, it looks awesome.
And so we have Alita, a wholly artificial being pieced together by the good Doctor Dyson Ido, who is never treated as anything less than fully human. In other words, anything from scum upwards. Iron City is not a nice pace to live but it has momentary distractions like good food, motorball and the hope of a better life in Sky City. You just have to be a better rat than all the other rats running around.
At its heart then, this is a story about class struggle, the haves and the have nots coming smack against the American Dream that you can have anything as long as you work hard enough for it. There is no manifest destiny here, the game is rigged and the only people who succeed are those who were born with the winning hand.
Much will be written about the appearance of Alita, possibly the most convincing CG creation on screen, and those IMA screens are not easy to trick when you are focusing in on the undulations in her cheeks. It is not a perfect simulacrum, not every facial gesture, not every position on the screen is utterly convincing and occasionally the fabric on her jeans looks just a touch too smooth. But an artificial body helps, in the portrayal, the detail on the porcelain structure is beautiful and far the more tragic when her story is revealed. So that lets the production team focus on the really convincing elements, her smile, the twitch of her nose and… her eyes.
This may be the best trick of all. They have carried the manga trope of large eyes, making that literal on screen for that one character. That also makes us more inclined to like her, triggering our reaction to a baby's big blues. But it also makes the whole portrayal more convincing by avoiding the uncanny valley where almost perfect gets rejected as utterly creepy. Alita jumps over the uncanny valley and does a double somersault at the same time. And if there's ever a moment that fails to convince – it's because she is an artificial life form. Robert Rodriguez has his cake and eats it.
I also want to talk about the 3D. I actively avoid 3D films, especially action movies, the speed fights against what I think I am meant to be seeing, I get headaches, I lose focus all the time and my brain fights against what it is seeing, in every 3D movie I have watched – except for Avatar. And now, Alita; Battle Angel. Whatever the Cameron influence is, however, he seems to do 3D differently from everyone else, he does. And my brain thanks him for it. And yes, this is a world which truly benefits from being enjoyed in three dimensions.
The relationships in this film have far less dimension. Christoph Waltz utterly steals the scenes he is in, and here with Dr Dyson Ido (and Geppetto) good father with a darker past, the cute boy with a darker past, the innocent heroine with a darker… you get the jist. Their love is pure, instant and undemanding. The bad guys are bad guys unless they are part of the family. And you only get to grow up when you get a new body.
This is the kind of thing which upsets some, and makes others laugh. And there were a few laughs in London's Leicester Square tonight. But generally they were of joy. Of finding this world through the big eyes of Alita, it's hopes and fears, it's dangers and thrills, a bar fight out of Kill Bill, a sports battle out of Ben Hur, and – well no spoilers, but there is one scene that is utterly reminiscent of Titanic. You know Rodriguez put it in there to have fun with James Cameron.
There are some messages people will seize on. Iron City has guns banned as a way for the sky city of Zalem to stop its citizens from rising up. Or at least that's the spin. Which takes a lot of the action away from the Western tropes in favour of the samurai and martial arts movies. You don't even get Chekhov's Non-Existing Gun, the rule which states if an absence of a gun is noted in the first act, it must be shot by the end of the third.
And so in adapting the manga, they have chosen to tell a story from somewhere in the middle. It really starts fast, set up is over and you are into the main thrust of the movie in he very first minutes. With flashbacks to her past emerging every time she endangers herself, giving her the drive to keep doing that to herself, this moves the plot on with far more motivation than otherwise. And then it leaves us with an ending that some will find unfulfilling, used to having so much plot crammed into two-and-a-half hours that you can't breathe. Alita: Battle Angel just finds a good place to stop – and lets us tell what happens in our heads. Or many pick up the comics. It's as if The Fellowship Of The Ring was a natural ending point, and that works.
It might be worth knowing that going in. No false expectations, but a chance to enjoy what it. Will there be a sequel? Does there need to be? Isn't this the best story to be told? I thought I'd be annoyed but then felt rather content. Your mileage may vary…
Oh and Ed Skrein should get some sort of award for portraying the most smug self-satisfied annoying face you can't help but what to hit. He even has a spike instead of a soul patch…