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Robert Rodriguez And James Cameron Team For ‘Alita’

Yukito Kishiro’s 1990 cyberpunk manga provides inspiration for film

Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox

The CGI action delivers some thrills in "Alita."

Companion viewing

"Rollerball" (1975)

"El Mariachi" (1992)

"Battle Angel" (1993 anime)

Producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez team up to bring the 1990 Japanese comic "Alita" — opening Feb. 13 — to the screen.

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'Alita' manga pages

'Alita' manga pages

Sample pages from Yukito Kishiro's 1990 manga 'Alita.'

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Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Odd bedfellows? Producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez have very different styles of filmmaking but their shared love for Japanese manga "Alita" brought them together of this film project.

Rebel Texas filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and Hollywood big shot James Cameron make odd bedfellows. In fact, on a certain level, they seem polar opposites. Rodriguez often makes amazing films with a minimal budget and a refusal to work within the Hollywood system. Cameron, on the other hand, moved quickly into big-budget Hollywood mainstream filmmaking often working with huge budgets and stars. Having seen both host panels at Comic-Con, I would also say that their personal styles seem very different as well.

Yet both have a love for state-of-the-art film technology and apparently a shared passion for Yukito Kishiro’s post-apocalyptic cyberpunk manga "Battle Angel Alita," and that's where the film "Alita" was born.

The story is set in the 26th century and hundreds of years after what has been called "the Fall," the world has suffered a societal collapse that has left little infrastructure in place. The film opens with Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz giving the character a lovely Geppetto-esque quality), a kind cyberphysician, scavenging a junk heap on the outskirts of Iron City for usable parts. There he discovers the head and heart of a female cyborg among the garbage and he brings it home and rebuilds her body. He gives her the name of his dead daughter and this new Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no memory of her past or who she was.

Ido tries to shield her from the dangers of Iron City but her new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson) is a gateway to some of that nether world where hunter-warriors track criminals and a man named Vector (Mahershala Ali) rules. Alita is a bit like Shakespeare's Miranda looking at a "brave new world." But she starts to get clues to her past and discovers that she might be a warrior with special battle skills.

The action scenes are the best thing in the movie. In some ways, this film feels like what Rodriguez wanted to make with his "Spy Kids" if he only had had the money and if film technology had been better back then. Now he has been given a reported $200 million budget and visual effects are at an all time high so Rodriguez goes wild. One smart move is to give Alita oversized manga eyes so we avoid the uncanny valley of a CGI character trying to look too human and failing (which can pull you out of the story).

Rodriguez captures the look of the manga (see the pages I've included with the post) and its action but he seems less concerned with Kishiro's questions of humanity and bloodlust (related to both the violent Motorball, which looks like Rollerball, game and to the violence of the hunter-warriors and soldiers). The film serves up a fun ride for about half its journey but then falters and ends badly.

The main problem is that the film builds to a final confrontation and then backs away awkwardly to leave an opening for a sequel. Imagine getting to the battle of Helm's Deep in "Lord of the Ring" and having Aragon go, "Hey guys, let's forget this and just walk away and leave the fighting to the next film ... if there is one." It's frustrating.

"Alita" builds to a climax and takes us within striking distance of a confrontation but then walks away to begin a whole other story.

"Alita" is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.

Producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez team up to bring the 1990 Japanese comic "Alita" (opening Feb. 13) to the screen.

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