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Alita: Battle Angel (Blu-ray Review)

Before Avatar, I had heard plenty about producer James Cameron’s plan to direct Alita: Battle Angel. After two decades, the film finally arrived in theaters, but in the hands of another. Robert Rodriguez, a filmmaker with plenty in common with Cameron, stepped into big-budget territory for his first time, delivering spectacle deserving of a big-screen viewing experience. Even when the film came up lacking in the narrative department, enough work was on display to show how Alita plays as manga come to life in bold and ambitious ways. The film was a modest hit at the box office, and whether or not a sequel ever comes to fruition, this Blu-ray release comes packed with extras in support of the excellent technical presentation.

Film:

Following some explanation to set up the year of 2563 as a dystopian future where the high-class lives in Zalem, a city in the sky, while the rest mostly reside in the junkyard metropolis of Iron City, we meet Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Ido is first seen searching through junk, only to find the remains of a female cyborg with a fully intact brain. Bringing her back to life by attaching a new body, “Alita” is born. Performed via motion capture by Rosa Salazar, the rest of the film revolves around Alita’s journey to discover who she really is.

Based on Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita) by Yukito Kirshiro, the real key to making a film like this work lies in the ways that many of Cameron’s projects are successful. Rather than pushing forward immediately with high-octane action, this is a film that keeps its focus on character. Having co-written the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, one can see Cameron’s goal in making sure Alita is someone the audience cares about. Does that mean all of the other characters are well-rounded or the film avoids having obvious themes being stated out loud? No, but I’m willing to take in some clunkier aspects of this story for the sake of a film that is genuinely well-acted and fittingly stable in its heightened, futuristic world.

That’s not to say the film is small scale, but starting from a personal level by keeping focus around the doctor and his surrogate cyborg daughter allows an audience to learn about the world at mostly the same rate Alita does. Because of this, there’s a lot of great work done to develop Iron City, what we need to know about how it functions, and what kind of inhabitants there are. Being a fairly straightforward story, while we can tell it has a vast population, we mainly meet street kids and bounty hunters.

As limiting as it may seem, it’s also telling that Alita is a film that knows how to have fun in being a live-action manga adaptation. While the characters do take things seriously, this is very much a film that allowed Rodriguez to play. The director has had a lot of practice working in his Austin studio, outside of the Hollywood system, but with a crazy budget and a visionary like James Cameron behind him, nothing is stopping Rodriguez from launching Alita into some wild situations.

To the film’s credit, the stakes are mostly personal. Alita doesn’t become a fight for the survival of the entire city. Because of that, the plot takes its time, allowing us to engage in the exhilarating death sport known as motorball, along with exploring the politics of the bounty hunters known as Hunter-Warriors. This is the kind of film that somehow gets the sport mashed together with the function of these assassins and is the better for it. Much as one may see a lot of familiarity with Alita serving as some kind of chosen one, there’s a lot to enjoy about a film that would rather have scores settled in bar fights, over-the-top sports matches, and showdowns where the scale is set at a David vs. Goliath level.

None of this works without having a capable team on hand both in front of and behind the camera. In terms of the actors, Salazar does a commendable job of making us care about Alita. For audiences to get behind this fully digital character, it helps that the choice in writing was to make her very positive, and without any sense of cynicism. It’s similar to another wildly ambitious sci-fi film that I enjoyed, Valerian, in that manner. For a futuristic society with so many ways to talk about how bad things are, we mainly focus on a character trying to see the good in it all, even when taking the appropriate actions to fight back.

In addition to Salazar, Waltz is very good in a low-key turn as a father-like figure. The film doesn’t make us wait long to understand his motivations, and at the same time, we get to see him get in on the action as well via a ridiculous rocket hammer fit for a comic book movie. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are mainly around to add some veteran authority as two baddies with varying levels of scheming on their minds. Keean Johnson is fine as the boy who befriends Alita, only to fall in love with her. It’s the weakest aspect of the film, though seeing Johnson dressed as a young Rodriguez throughout was humorous. The rest of the cast is a mix of character actors and Rodriguez regulars appearing as various CG creations to embody a wide array of killer machines, most notably Jackie Earle Haley as the hulking Grewishka, and Jeff Fahey as McTeague, an owner of several cyborg dogs.

Does it all work for a compelling story? Somewhat, but the larger point is in seeing this world brought to life and the action that unfolds. Yes, I’ve spoken about the work to make Alita, and others, stand out, but it does serve the purpose of having us care about the action, which is grand and wonderful. Rodriguez and Cameron are not strangers to designing elaborate action sequences, and the ones we see here sing with creativity thanks to help from veteran action cinematographer Bill Pope. Alita gets into several brawls during this film, and they are always focused, tense, and easy to comprehend. No matter how big the machines involved are, there’s a clear understanding of the mechanics of why things happen. One can tell how a reasonably small cyborg can take down massive mechanical monsters with razor-sharp blade hands or crazy robotic tentacles.

If there’s any real issue, it’s how the film gets to presumptive in where things will go next. With a few too many endings, following a story that kept the stakes fairly grounded, it’s irritating to see doors left open for follow-up films that may or may not happen. I would have rather seen the film stick to being this wild sports movie that happened to feature robot brawls with bounty hunters, but there’s the typical plotline surrounding corrupt businesspeople and leaders with vague overreaching goals on their mind.

More important than its story, however, is knowing what kind of accomplishments were made with realizing Alita. There’s creative energy on display here that we don’t get to see often on this scale, with these filmmakers. The film is coming in at a time when studios toss huge movies out there, and the established franchises tend to stick, while newer, ambitious attempts fall by the wayside. Having made just over $400 million, Alita was given a look by many thanks to the Cameron branding, but it wasn’t a blow-out success either. It has the spirit of a manga, made with the talents of those who can make these big ideas work on a level that’s not hung up on the logic of its plotting. That doesn’t make the film work beyond its story, but there’s more on display worth championing if it means getting to see two risk-taking rebels realize more of their crazy visions.

 

Video: 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 [Note: Sadly, despite the open matte presentation in IMAX and select theaters, the Blu-ray presentation for the US release maintains the original aspect ratio.]

Clarity/Detail: Getting a new Robert Rodriguez film, produced by James Cameron, means I don’t need to be surprised when it comes to the quality of the home release. This Blu-ray transfer does everything needed to continue to show off the amazing sense of visual discovery to be found in Alita: Battle Angel. While the big screen provides the spectacle you want for a film like this, seeing the film at home allows one to notice all the great detail that went into bringing this character and world to life. The detail is quite extraordinary as far as feeling grounded enough, despite how big it goes in making live-action anime.

Depth: Because 3D was a big part of the film’s theatrical release, there’s a lot to work with as far as the dimensionality of the feature. Spacing is appropriate, but the action scenes, particularly with motoball, create a real sense of space that plays into how we see the level of depth treated in an immersive sense.

Black Levels: The black levels are very strong, using the nighttime and darker interiors as a means to accurately convey the right sense of shadow in a mostly digitally created world. No crushing whatsoever, with deep black levels revealing themselves, the more we get into the darkness that emerges in underground sequences and more.

Color Reproduction: Sometimes, colors can come across a bit soft in these big special effects-driven features, but that’s not the case here. Alita is a manga come to life, so the film is sure to be quite expressive with the use of color to better distinguish all the elements that matter.

Flesh Tones: Facial textures all feature a high level of detail, which is vital given the hybrid special effects characters, in addition to the humans.

Noise/Artifacts: There is nothing wrong with this picture.

 

Audio: 

Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, English Dolby Digital 2.0, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French

Dynamics: This is a strong lossless track that manages to capture everything in the audio atmosphere for maximum effect. Lots to be impressed by, especially when it comes to motorball, as the sound design is key to creating such a tremendous auditory level of understanding and belief in the world.

Low-Frequency Extension: Thanks to the action and the music, you get a lot to work with on an LFE level. You can really feel the film when it comes to the fights, and, again, the crazy motorball segments.

Surround Sound Presentation: A great balance is created here, as the surround presentation does all it needs to in creating an immersive world that feels like it could exist. Hearing the sounds on the streets of everything going on around Alita only adds to what’s highlighted with the center and front channels. Action has all the right amount of impact thanks to allowing the rear channels to work properly here. A great job was done with this.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.

 

Extras: 

Alita: Battle Angel arrives with quite a few bonus features to satisfy those wanting to get a sense of how they brought the title character to life. We also get some thoughts from the cast in the digital exclusive extras, along with a deeper look at some other aspects of the production. This is mainly a display of the technology used to bring the character to life, but there’s a lot of good material to watch. A lack of a commentary track also hurts, given how much fun it is to hear Cameron and Rodriguez talk about filmmaking, but I always welcome one of Rodriguez’s cooking school segments.

Features Include:

  • Alita’s World – A series of motion comics used to help explain the world of Alita.
    • The Fall (HD, 5:05) ­– This chapter goes over the war that led to Alita’s arrival in the scrapyard.
    • Iron City (HD, 3:19) – This chapter focuses on Hugo’s life as a scrap dealer.
    • What It Means To Be A Cyborg (HD, 2:28) – Zapan, the cyborg bounty hunter, goes over his life as a machine.
    • Rules of the Game (HD, 2:52) – A look at the rules of motorball.
  • From Manga To Screen (HD, 20:47) – A look at the original manga, the adaptation process, and what it means to combine the film and the original art, and what the process was to hand the movie off from Cameron to Rodriguez, featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
  • Evolution of Alita (HD, 19:43) – A look at the technology, design, character, and depth of Alita, featuring interviews with Salazar, and the cast & crew.
  • Motorball (HD, 6:02) – A more in-depth look at the awesome sport that is motorball.
  • London Screening Q&A (HD, 26:38) – The cast and crew sit down to discuss the making of the film.
  • 10 Minute Cooking School: Chocolate (HD, 5:28) – One of the best features on any Rodriguez film, his cooking school.
  • 2005 Art Compilation (HD, 14:20) – A recreation of some the film’s key sequences, using 2005 art as a storyboard.
  • Scene Deconstruction (HD, 10:47) – A neat feature that allows you to watch multiple scenes from the film in different stages of production to see how the CG animation process and use of evolving technology work in bringing Alita to life.

Digital Exclusive Extras:

  • Streets of Iron City (HD, 17:15) – Robert Rodriguez provides a tour of Iron City, featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
  • Musical Themes (HD, 5:36) – A look at the development of the film’s terrific score.
  • Allies and Adversaries (HD, 25:32) – A brief breakdown of all the various characters in the film, featuring interviews with the various members of the cast.
  • 2016 Art Reel (HD, 11:58) – Concept art from 2016 matched against the final film, to give more of an idea of the evolution that took place.
  • Theatrical Trailers (HD)
  • DVD Copy of the Film
  • Digital HD Copy of the Film

 

Summary: 

Alita: Battle Angel is not perfect as a film, but it gave me a lot to enjoy thanks to Rodriguez taking the chance to expand beyond his comfort zone. Working with Cameron, he’s been given a huge budget to have a lot of fun with, and fortunately, there was a lot to take away from the film (motorball!). The Blu-ray release is very good, with the technical presentation being a standout element, of course. The special features are pretty solid as well, allowing for a good look at what went into the making of the film. If you’re looking for a film to impress thanks to both its visuals and the choice to make the lead character a strong one, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Alita: Battle Angel, which balances the strengths you tend to find in Cameron films with the bonkers nature of sci-fi manga stories.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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