At the time I started film school Robert Rodriguez was the template for all indie filmmakers, especially at UT Austin. Rodriguez, an Austin transplant born and raised in San Antonio, had been making films since he was in short pants. He was raised on Carpenter, Raimi, and Miller (of the George variety), and fitting of his influences, his budgets were low, his editing was fast, his cinematography was kinetic and his narratives whimsical.
James Cameron, on the other hand, was the legend that grew up in the school of Corman working on such low budget gems as "BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS" and the original "PIRANHA" series. That was until a small movie called "TERMINATOR" and he was running with the big boys. The original, classic, cyberpunk, semi-post-apocalyptic masterpiece was a film that broke the fucking mold in sci-fi. It upped the stakes on every level. On his next few films, he became the director that had overblown budgets, carefully orchestrated editing, action-filled frames carefully planned on paper and tight character-driven narratives.
So how do these two with such varying styles relate enough to create a film such as ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL together?…. REBELLIOUSNESS.
Robert was the guy that threw the finger to the DGA, edited, shot and in many cases scored his own films to the mantra of "be dangerous". Cameron, on the other hand, directed classics with budgets that played more like the ways of blackjack to the minds of studio heads. He had never lost a hand, but with each of his films budgets inflating and studios questioning his fiduciary whims, he came up with what are still the two highest grossing films of all time. Not because of the studios, but despite them.
And all of this is important, why? Because I need to know how you get a beautiful, engaging film like ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL to the screen. It's a chemical compound that needs to be unlocked. It is almost an opposites attracting law of nature that cinema was suddenly subjected to that created this work of ingenious pop-art. Make no mistake, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is a masterpiece.
ALITA centers around a Pinocchio like premise set in a future that would make Geppetto suck on a power line. Iron City is a gritty city that exists after "The Fall". The kind of place that bounty hunters, gamblers, and murderous cyborgs find virtue in their lack of, or loss of, humanity. A city where humanity in and of itself is a danger. This is where Alita, played brilliantly by Rosa Salazar, enters into the life of Christoph Waltz's Dr. Dyson Ido by way of a scrap heap, an initially unimpressive dump with the mechanical refuse of the almost mythical floating world of Zalem; a floating aspiration for the struggling populace of Iron City. Dr. Ido finds and revives the core of a young female cyborg that he would name after his passed daughter named Alita. The core that makes up Alita turns out to be powerful super tech that as quickly as Alita is a daughter, she becomes a warrior fighting to save the best of Iron City from its worst. All with a streak of empathy that is refreshing for a hero that can be as brutal, if not more so, than her enemies. Alita's artificial core shows more humanity than any other human in the film and it is a pleasure to watch.
If this story sounds vague, this is intentionally so. I knew nothing of the manga that came before the film and I entered a world unlike any I had seen before. The closest comparison I could draw was the first time I watched "Star Wars: A New Hope" all those years ago (yeah, I can't believe I wrote that either).
It took a tremendous amount of talent to put all of these pieces together. Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley, Eiza Gonzalez, and Ed Skrein to name a few, but it was Alita that truly made this film special. Rosa Salazar is a rare talent that has the ability to portray strength, beauty, compassion, naivety, and growth as if it were as natural as breathing. She has always been talented, but she stands up with these heavyweight actors in her first leading role and is able to still ground the film in her portrayal of Alita. The character is elevated to a complex persona that is both easy to love, feel you want to protect and to be protected by because she is without a doubt the strongest person in any room. I can't wait to see more of Rosa in anything she chooses to do next, and there will be plenty thrown her way.
What I found most surprising in the film was the enormous presence of Robert Rodriguez. It is easily his best film since his debut of "El Mariachi", ALITA is a film where Robert is playing on a different plane. Most might see the film and not see Robert's presence in the film, but it is everywhere. The music choices, costume design, set design, editing, and cinematography. This is only Robert playing at his largest scale ever. The editing from "El Mariachi" was inspired and wildly random which made it inspirational. ALITA is carefully planned and on axis at all times. Almost mathematical in a way that only Spielberg and Cameron usually pull off. All in service to the narrative to be sure, but it is amazing to see.
Although Robert's kinetic camera work has always been a staple of his movies, it is still here in a planned out sense that drives the story and informs the aforementioned editing to keep the film exciting but never sway from the energy that we can expect from Rodriguez. I can say though, that there are a couple of moments where I felt that maybe James Cameron had lent some storyboards from his abandoned "Spiderman" project and Robert was right to take them. I don't want to spoil them by pointing them out, but you will know them when you see them. There is also one tip of the hat to El Mariachi (or Desperado really) that was so subtle that it never took me out of the film and I can't wait to hear the comments to see who picked up on it. Or maybe I am reading too much into it. Who knows? Maybe that is the price Robert and James paid in building such a fleshed out world: the audience will project our own wishes and memories into your landscape and there isn't a thing you can do about it.
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is a film that follows in the footsteps of Joseph Campbell. As a hero, Alita is one of the thousands of faces that great mythology is both built on and subverted by. The subtext is so rich that I don't see how I can ever watch the movie again without peeling back more layers to the universe that is just being built. I don't know how much of this is Yokito Kushiro or Rodriguez and Cameron, but it is fascinating, new and wonderful.
Salud. Everyone here has done great work. Now I only have one question to ask Robert, James, and Rosa… When do we get more?