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Having no memory of who she is, Alita, a deactivated cyborg revived by doctor Ido goes on a quest to find about her past that will lead her to answers that can change the fate of this world.
*Be aware of spoilers*
The year is 2563, 300 years after the last great war that left most of the known world in ruins a compassionate scientist called doctor Ido finds a deactivated cyborg on a junkyard below the last floating city called Zalem. After bringing her back to life he realizes that she has a far more important past than what meats the eye. With Alita having no memory of her past Ido tries to protect her from the dangers of Iron City while her new romance Hugo wants to help her remember her past.
Soon Alita finds out that Ido works secretly as a Hunter-Warrior in order to pay his expenses as he tries to ambush a deadly cyborg and when Ido is getting hurt she helps him and finds out that she has extraordinary fighting skills. Hugo and his friends take Alita to an abandoned spaceship where she finds a Berserker warrior cyborg body but Ido refuses to put it on her fearing that she will become what she was meant to be.
Alita becomes a Hunter-Warrior and goes to Kansas bar to ask for support from other Hunter-Warriors to take down Grewishka when in the end she fights him alone when he makes an appearance. With Grewishka retreating and Alita almost loosing the battle Ido has no choice but to put her in the Berserker body. With her taking part in a Motorball game Vector arranges Alita to be killed but when Hugo is in danger from Zapan she escapes the game and saves him from death.
Hugo’s head is transplanted into a cyborg body while Alita faces Vector and kills Grewishka. Hugo escapes the clinic and tries to climb a factory cable to Zalem only to be killed by a massive spiked ring that leaves Alita devastated by her loss.
Alita: Battle Angel has been in development hell for almost 20 years since James Cameron showed real interest in developing a film based on Yukito Kishiro’s Japanese cyberpunk manga series and while at some point there was a strong indication that the creator behind films like Terminator, Aliens and the Titanic would direct it himself another unknown film, called Project 880 at that time, would win his interest over Battle Angel that would later become the magnum opus Avatar.
And while this Pocahontas turned into Sci-Fi themed film turned out one of the biggest financial successes of modern cinema and led Cameron to keep his attention fully focused on the upcoming sequels it never took away his desire to make Battle Angel happen. Obviously with a few Avatar sequels on the way and knowing Cameron for taking his time it would be impossible for him to also direct Battle Angel even if he wanted to. But being a passionate project for Cameron had granted the film a certain degree of safety because we all know that when Cameron wants to get a project moving he just gives the word and studios follow.
And as such we reached 2019 when the film finally got to see it’s release and while James Cameron may be acting only as a producer it still remains his story. But having such a high caliber writer and producer meant that the film needed an equally accomplished director and that was no other than Robert Rodriguez. With Cameron writing the story and producing and Rodriguez as director success should be inevitable, right?
In all honesty before seeing the film I will say that we had no previous exposure to the Alita manga series so we had no knowledge of the backstory or any of it’s elements. Also this made sure that we had no idea how close the film would be to the source material which we consider a plus and will definitely make you enjoy the film more as looking for how close an adaption is usually takes away from the core experience. So with all the above out of the way how did the film actually fared?
First of all we have to admit that although the film is very much Robert Rodriguez’s visual work we can see small details in Cameron’s writing that is very characteristic of his attention to detail something similarly to what we had seen in Avatar. The world of Iron City is a gritty, dystopian one where the weak live in the shadows while deadly Hunter-Warriors are looking for their next target in order to get the rewards. It reminded us of Pandora but instead of lush jungles and green forests here we get a cyborg infested city with dangers lurking in every corner.
The main focus of the film obviously is on Alita (Rosa Salazar), an abandoned cyborg that has lost all memory of her past and where she belonged, thrown away in a junkyard below Zalem, the last floating city remaining on Earth in the 26th century, some good 300 years after the last war that brought the world to it’s current state. Her savior, the mysterious scientist Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), who helps the weak in the day while turns into avenger mode at night creates a special bond with Alita as she reminds him of his lost daughter. Into the mix we also find Hugo (Keean Johnson) as Alita’s love interest and scrap dealer and while you would expect him and Alita to have the better chemistry in our opinion this turned out to be more true between Alita and Ido.
Hugo felt to us like a very cliche character and one that only was there to just help Alita find her true identity instead of being one that would stand by her in any meaningful way to drive the story forward. A good example of this we can see on what Cameron did in Avatar where Jake and Neytiri found equal footing. But this was possible only with Jake taking a Na’vi body that helped him find an equal exposure to Neytiri and bring him closer to her. Without giving much away something similar we do get here but it seems that Cameron didn’t know what to do with this character as it felt that it was never his intention to keep him close with Alita.
A lot of attention was given to how Alita would look and work here has been magnificent. Obviously the big eyes was a deliberate move on the producer’s part in order to keep it as close as possible to it’s manga routes but everything else on her seems to have a very realistic but at the same time weird and bizarre feel to it. It’s the everlasting problem that CGI artists face with uncanny valley and the more they push towards realism the more strange it becomes. Having this look puzzled us a bit as we couldn’t determine if this was deliberate or not.
We have seen lately many tries on trying to achieve a completely realistic CGI driven actor and it seems this to be a completely hit or miss situation. Because for obvious misses like Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One there are some good hits like the aged Wolverine in Logan or the young Arnold Schwarzenegger as the evil T-800 in Terminator Genisys.
The rest of the CGI characters although very well made and detailed are very obvious of their CGI nature but we cannot say we were taken aback by it. Also interaction between the CGI characters and real actors was very good and seamless helping to better associate the fake elements with the real ones.
And if the characters are one part of this computer generated extravaganza the other definitely is the environments and all of the action. Special mentioned should be made for the Motorball sequence where we get a breathtaking futuristic death race where Alita faces a group of players that were hired to kill her. But Motorball is not the only action scene we get as Alita gets a lot of hand to hand combat with enemy cyborgs and we do get some impressive choreography that gives you a real sense of this deadly fighting machines. The film is not afraid to get down and dirty and we get plenty of smashing and slashing although most of it involves robots taking on each other.
Although it feels like that the general intention was to make the film a standalone story we were taken aback by the lackluster ending as it was both very anti-climatic and leaves things wide open for a sequel. This is a good thing if you are sure that a sequel will be made but with Alita’s soft success if the studios decide to back away from it Alita’s story is in danger of being left incomplete. This is not something usual we see with Cameron’s stories as most movies have a closure to some degree and even with Avatar that it was obvious that a sequel would come in one way or the other it offered a satisfying ending that could keep the film self-contained.
As we cannot really compare the live action film to the manga series we will judge the film as it is. A futuristic sci-fi action driven movie film and as that it works very good if you exclude the wide open ending. Characters have a certain quality to them even if the CGI looks very obvious, the fights are satisfying and the action is plenty. The film has definitely the touch of James Cameron and with Robert Rodriguez’s direction the film has a very characteristic visual style.
Unfortunately the film failed to find a wide enough audience that would guarantee a sequel right away. For some reason it didn’t have the appeal of Avatar and either this has to do with it’s general setting or story remains a mystery. With such a light success and Cameron being fully busy behind the Avatar sequels for the next few good years we are not so sure about Alita’s future. So for the time being we should consider that her story had been told and wrapped until the powers to be decide on her future.
Alita: Battle Angel slices into the 4K UHD format with a solid 2160p resolution, HEVC / H.265 encode by 20th Century Fox that has an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and comes fully packed with Dolby Vision, HDR10+ as well as Dolby Atmos. This version is a bit of a mixed bag, even more so than what the final score may show but let’s get the obvious first out of the way.
The higher resolution of the UHD format helps to flesh out more details in most scenes. Even the CGI created faces seem to benefit from that as small imperfections on their skins are more visible with scars and pores. The cyborg bodies and metal constructions also show more details on their surfaces as well as in their complex designs. Colors seem to also get some boost but there is not a whole lot of difference compared to the Blu-ray version. There are a few scenes that have a bit different coloring but more or less we get the same overall image.
HDR is also helping a little but not to the degree we have seen in other films. There are many night scenes in Iron City and HDR help the various neon lights to have a more pronounced tone while black levels and shadow details are very solid. For such an effects driven film we were expecting a bigger upgrade when it comes to HDR but what we get is more of a slight boost rather than a breathtaking performance that we have seen Dolby Vision to be capable of.
One more thing we should mention is that while at first glance such a film appears to have a very digitally clean look in fact there are many scenes that show a more soft image than what you would expect. There are some shots of Iron City for example in pure daylight that you would expect to have a crystal clear image but instead the UHD version goes a tad softer which we can’t really say if it was intended or not but it’s very obvious and a bit disappointing to be honest.
As for the audio the included Dolby Atmos track comes with all the necessary oomph and surround activity that would would expect from such an action infested film. The battle scenes provide many opportunities for the subwoofer to flex it’s muscles while obviously the highlight of the film is the Motorball sequence where the Dolby Atmos track provide enough channels shifting and channels separation not only behind us but also above us. It’s a great scene if you want to test your Dolby Atmos enabled audio system and one that will leave you completely immersed.
In total the 4K UHD version of Alita: Battle Angel is one of the better encodes the format has to offer but we cannot say it can reach exactly reference levels of quality. The image offer small improvements both in resolution, texture clarity, colors and HDR but it’s not the breathtaking upgrade you would expect from such an effects-heavy film. On the other hand the audio is top notch and the Atmos track will shake you, bounce you and throw you around with all it’s three dimensional activity making it a memorable experience.
If you liked the film the 4K UHD version is the way to go and it deserves to be part of your collection as it can offer a couple of hours of pure cinematic enjoyment.
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