Special effects pioneer James Cameron had been developing Alita for more than a decade, but when he struck gold with Avatar the project fell by the wayside. Fellow-3D enthusiast Robert Rodriguez took over the reins, paring the script down from a 5 hour film to just 2. Although necessary, the story suffered in translation. There is a lot of expository dialogue, and the romantic subplot is particularly thin – but at least they didn’t split it into two films à la Harry Potter.
Set in the far future, after a reverse-Babel event has caused the world’s civilisations to retreat to a single city, cyborg Alita is found in pieces at a rubbish dump – entirely robotic except for her human brain. Suffering from amnesia, she sets out to discover her identity. Her incredible fighting abilities and impulse to stand against evil give the first clues.
Another city hovers above, where the world’s malevolent ruler dwells. Alita pairs up with street-kid Hugo to take on the god-like villain, and their romance hints at deep questions: do our minds hold the essence of our humanity, or our bodies, or both? The story has themes of sacrifice, redemption and even resurrection – when Alita is reassembled it is as though she is back from the dead – but such philosophical moments are short-lived, as much of the screen time is given to spectacular but unrelenting action. The violence is extreme for a 12A, though there is relatively little blood as most of the fighting is between robots.
What little social commentary the story offers is ambiguous. It suggests that the ideal body is a projection of our subconscious self-image, making the body an expression of identity rather than an integral part of it. On the other hand the film has very positive portrayals of women. Refreshingly, Alita’s appearance is not overly sexualised (which can’t be said of the Japanese comic source material). Cameron is known for writing strong female characters, and Alita certainly continues that. The film also gives a glimpse of a bright future for the disabled – the production led to technological advancements for real-life prosthetics.
The computer effects are astounding. Producer Jon Landau said there is more detail in one of Alita’s computer-generated eyes than there was in the whole of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings! The results are awe-inspiring, and unlike other stereoscopic films, many of which are merely retrofitted with the effect, Alita is worth catching in 3D.
★★★★☆ A technical marvel that asks some searching questions.