Poster - 20th Century Fox

When it comes to cyberpunk world building, some major names are to be mentioned: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, the Matrix, etc. On this Valentines Day, a very special film put its mark on the board - Alita: Battle Angel. I was lucky enough to book a seat on a night packed with Valentine couples and enjoyed it on the Laser IMAX screen in Mall of the Emirates VOX cinema. Here are my first impressions.


Here are some background knowledge for better understanding. This film was originally written and drawn by Japanese Comic Artist Yukito Kushiro. It was first adapted into an “OVA” (Original Video Animation) in 1993 by Hiroshi Fukutomi. James Cameron had an intrigue with the story itself the moment he saw the animation and decided to adapt it into a major production film. James scripted the adaptation as early as 2005. However he could never move on to the real adaptation of the film since he was commisioned to work on Avatar and its sequels. Finally in 2016 the film is confirmed to be directed by Robert Rodrigeuz and co-produced by Cameron.


Story (No Spoilers)

Alita - 20th Century Fox

Even knowing the back story before I entered the cinema, I was expecting to see a film that’s disappointing yet packed with action that keep one’s eyeball busy. My fixed sterotype on big budget Hollywood films informs me it will be nothing better than the adaptation from Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell Manga series to the Rubert Sander’s film. Political elements demanded for a Americanized storytelling method that attracts to the “Joe Sixpacks” or “Soccer Moms”, the widest population that guarentees a maximized return. 150 million is a too big gamble to take.

It turns out I was only half right about the action part. Apparently I do not know well enough about James Cameron and was amazed by his ability to persist the best possible of the essence of the Japanese storytelling technique. Even under the presumption that I have not seen the original manga before, there are apparent elements that brings the current storytelling apart from the majority, and one easily detects them if you are heavy manga readers like I do.

For people who are unfamiliar with this kind of storytelling, one may feel unease at this plot. Now the story itself is very much about Alita herself, but there is much more to that. The story aims to develop her as a hero, but not by an absolute moral standard. There are moments when audience could even question the motivation of the decisions she make, about the consequences it will lead to. There are both light and dark sides in Alita, her companions, and even her enemies. She has the loving side as a teenage girl and the cruelty as the battle angel. Consequently the mixed characteristics arouses an unspeakable connection between me and her. Should I stand by herside, or recess from the all-conquering battle arts she possess? The question rises: should one possesses great power refrain from using it because of the destructive effect it incur, or none is mattered? The confliction is what brings the story standing out from the majority films we have seen, and I hope you will enjoy it as you watched it.

Cyberpunk, Post Apocaliptic World Building

Now perhaps on the other hand, all depictions of Alita and stories around her was only about contributing to the world that Fukutomi, Cameron and Rodrigeuz tries to build. As mentioned the story is staged in a cyberpunk and post apocaliptic world. If you are cyberpunk fans, this will be a great feast. Like Bladerunner, Alita’s world is technologically advanced, differing in that it recessed from an extreme prosperity. Like Mad Max: Road to Fury, the society is orligargic and stratification is severe. Small group of people watches over the suppliers for the upper class. The stories originated within the lower class, where “the strong prey for the weak” becomes the governing rule. Alita’s fighting skills certainly makes her an elite of the crowd. Bearing this in mind will make it easier to understand the decisions her companion takes.

Besides, similar to Ghost in the Shell, the story also involves discussion of soul and flesh. It raises questions about the definition of true self and ultimately leads to the discussion in ontology. Unfortunately the discussion was never digged deep enough limited by the length of the film, which is over 120 minutes but mostly occupied with action scenes. There are cyborgs and body part replacements becomes common. The presentation of these technology through WETA’s cutting edge visual effects is another big attraction not to miss.


Close ups - 20th Century Fox

You have to admire WETA’s techonology when it comes to CGIs. Most amazing fact being that Alita is indeed virtually constructed from ground up. The figure is construted from polygons, with shading, textures and lighting, reaching ultimate photorealism. The close up shots persists throughout the films shows the amount of details that persists in her huge manga-like eyes, on her soft smooth human face skin and her textureless reflective alloy body. While in Avatar, an alien would yield no resemblence to human and therefore there is no true reference of what is “real” or not; for Alita, she indeed holds ample human features. WETA’s realization of her figure makes audience telling no pecularity when she stands next to Christopher Waltz, an actor only captured by cinema cameras. The motion capture also adopted a dual dummy system - one for the actress, the other for the character. The motion data is first matched from capture to the actress model and later transferred to the character.

Rosa Salazar was casted as the actress who “impersonate” Alita. More than merely the motion capture stunt role, her facial expression also contributed hugely to the building of the character herself. According to behind the scenes and recounts, Rosa’s lively attitude matches exactly what Alita’s core personality - a curious outgoing teenage girl. Cameron believes to make one character believable, making facial expression perfect is the key. WETA established two high definition camera for expression capturing, providing twice the amount of detail than before to establish the baseline for expression animation.

Background art is good. There are some breathtaking scenes and does the job to show the nitty grittys of the underworld. But less impressive than the figures.

Overall this is top in class visual effects. WETA once again break their own records and take virtual figures to the next level.

Side story: I participated a demonstration when WETA presented in SIGGRAPH 2017, where they explained the back stories for Guardian of the Galaxies and Planet of the Apes. The success of such scale of VFX work requires joint collaboration of top in the line artists and scientists. For a specific scene, it requires mathmetitians to first derive a new fractal formation, rendering a sequence in CG and later decorated by artists.

The downsides

The scores for the film, however, is less satisfying. There are adoptions of symphonies, but overall they are typical cinematic humdrums you would normally hear in any epic scenes. In comparison to the visuals, the effect from audio is less evocative.

3D stereoscopic is not very satisfying for some scenes. There are certain wide angle birdeye view (like to the city) shots that should impress audience with the parallex effects on the spot. I just did not receive that impact.

Sound FX is ok. General IMAX sound adaptation is satisfying to hear so I recommend watching it in an IMAX cinema if possible.


Action Packed - 20th Century Fox

Overall, it is a satisfying film to watch. Action lovers can find it action packed through out the 120 min. For visual lovers, this is (probably) the most cutting edge technology you will see until Avatar II. For sci-fi/cyberpunk fans, it is simply a feast you cannot miss.

Whether it is a lengendary movie is left to be discussed. Metacritc has it on 53%, a mixed review range. Conflicted emotion and plots leads to too many unanswered questions before the story ends. But at least one thing is certain - a respect is paid, for the first time in any production of this scale in the western world, to Fukutomi, the original creative mind behind the plot itself.

More to Read:

  1. Desowitz on VFX
  2. Nordine Reviews