The best sci-fi movie of 2019 is here: “Alita: Battle Angel”
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
“ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL”
4K Ultra HD, 3-D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD copy; 2019: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some profanity; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), iTunes (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: All good. “From Manga to Screen” and the animated "Alita's World" come out on top.
GET READY to fall in love with the battle angel, Alita, and her world.
With an absolutely perfect blend of live and CG performance, “Alita: Battle Angel” overthrows the standard darkness of CG-heavy films for a world of contrasting sunshine and moonlight. It blazes new standards for those films AND it does it with memorable characters and a great story. We’re talking James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez great.
They're the talent behind the movie based on a manga series by Yukito Kishiro, which began about 30 years ago. Alita was a secondary character at first, until the publisher suggested he write a story focusing on her. Fans reacted very well, and a 90 minute anime, “Rusty Angel” was made. Guillermo del Toro saw it and recommended it to his friend, James Cameron of “Terminator,” “Aliens,” and “Titanic” fame. Cameron had a look, too. “I had a lump in my throat at the end of it,” he says in the extras on the release from 20th Century Fox.
“I saw it as this great female empowerment story. We went after the rights and then I discovered there was this whole rich series,” he says. So Cameron optioned it with the intention of making a movie or even a series of movies. Kishiro, a fan of both Cameron and Rodriguez, was thrilled by this new development. Who could blame him?
Shades of the “Terminator,” Alita’s futuristic, dystopian world is filled with cyborgs and science. “We’re building it on the richness and the detail and the artwork created by Yukito Kishiro [aka ‘Gunnm’],” Cameron says. The results are – as noted – amazing. It’s impossible to tell where CG begins and live action jumps in. Production relies more on sets built in director Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas. Green screen is limited.
“The ground floor table stakes was that it had to be completely real … It enhanced everyone’s performance to have real sets, real locations, really be in Iron City … This felt like a very relatable, tangible world.” — Robert Rodriguez, director
Cameron’s original story was 185 pages long, revolving around a “simple love story.” It took five years to write, but by 2005, CG technology had advanced to the point where he could begin work on ‘Avatar” (2009). “It was a coin toss between ‘Battle Angel’ and ‘Avatar,’ he says. Cameron and crew decided to focus on creating the best CG tech available, creating their own method. “Avatar” used more CG characters, so he opted for “Avatar” to develop the process. Later, Landau says, they discovered “Alita” posed more of a challenge. It’s technology will have a greater impact on future “Avatar” films.
Still, Cameron fell in love with “Avatar” and its world. He always felt he’d come back to “Alita,” but after “Avatar’s” great reception, and “things going even farther south in the real world with respect to indigenous rights, and climate change and environmental problems … I thought, ‘All right, “Avatar” is important. I need to keep making these ‘Avatar’ movies.” He gave up “Alita” as a director's project. Even so, he didn't want to hand it to just anyone.
Enter filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, another friend, known for his own hits – “Desperado” and “Spy Kids” – and for his winning collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and Frank Miller’s “Sin City.” He has an amazing range that, like Cameron, relies on character as well as story and effects.
Already a fan of Kishio’s manga, Rodriguez was stoked to learn Cameron had optioned the series. Then 15 years passed and no movie. When Cameron indicated he was only going to do “Avatar” films, Rodriguez’s heart skipped a beat. “As a Comic-Con geek fan, I wanted to know” what would happen to “Alita: Battle Angel,” he says.
Cameron gave him the script he’d finished, requesting Rodriquez bring it down to reasonable shooting length. It came with 600 pages of notes. Rodriquez says he decided to “edit” the work: “You don’t re-write Jim Cameron.” A few weeks later, he returned with a 130 page script that worked.
“One of the things that Robert said to us is that he wanted to treat this movie the way he treated ‘Sin City.’ He said, when he was making ‘Sin City,’ he made it a Frank Miller-style movie. When he was gonna do ‘Alita,’ he was gonna make it a Jim Cameron-style movie. In order for that to happen, he needed a true collaboration.” — Jon Landau, producer
It’s 2563, 300 years after The Fall. The aftermath of civil war between Earth and its space colonies results in the destruction of all sky cities except one, Zalem. Earth is decimated by a bioweapon that takes out 70 percent of the population. The sealed city of Zalem floats about Iron City, where refugees work in factories and grow food to support those above. In return, Zalem keeps Iron City citizens distracted with Motorball, where cyborg contestants battle to the death, hoping to win a place in Zalem.
Rosa Salazar plays Alita in a fine motion-capture performance. The character begins as a head and chest found in the Junkyard by cyborg doctor/engineer Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). He takes his discovery home and rebuilds her, naming her after his deceased daughter. Alita returns to life, but has no memory of who she was. Exploring Iron City, she meets Hugo, who becomes a friend and teaches her about her new world. She also meets Ido’s ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), a genius like her husband, but unstable. Hugo introduces Alita to street games and Motorball. He dreams of going to skycity Zalem, and, with his gang, secretly attacks and robs cyborgs of their parts to sell to Vector (Mahershala Ali), manager/owner of the Motorball tournaments. Vector has direct contact with Zalem, and Hugo – like Chiren – hopes to pave his way there with his help.
As Alita rediscovers more of her identity and skills, she is led to a magnificent cyber body in a crashed space ship. It’s an URM (United Republics of Mars) from the Great War. She brings it to Ido, who refuses to install Alita in it. Frustrated and angry, she applies to become a Hunter-Warrior, then makes an enemy of Zapan (Ed Skrein, “Deadpool”). He won’t be the first or the last. Alita is so badly damaged in a fight that Ido must place her in the URM Berserker. She and Hugo fall in love, and he gives up his life of crime – but not before he’s caught. Alita must then decide between saving Hugo, risking her license and destruction, or becoming a warrior outlaw.
The Fox release comes with several viewing options: 1080p, 2160p, 3-D, and a 4K digital streaming code. It was filmed on Arri Alexa Mini cameras, with Panavision Primo Lenses (dual strip 3-D), using the PACE/CAMERON Fusion Camera System. Runtime is 2 hours, 2 minutes; aspect ratio for home viewing is set at 2.39:1. In theaters it would bounce between 1.90:1 and 2.39:1.
As noted, this is an outstanding, reference quality picture blending live action and CG elements, far better than anything seen by Disney or in the MCU. The 1080p will not disappoint; it has Cameron quality all over it. But the 2180p and 3-D are definite upticks, with the Ultra 4K winning by a hair. Color is rich and saturated; detail in Alita's cluttered, fallen world is accurate to a pixel, and contrast between day and night scenes are beautifully displayed. HDR Dolby Vision and HDR 10 provide authentic skin tones in the mixed-race, multiple-ethnic environments. That extra touch of shading packs quite a punch. “Alita” is pure space-fantasy, but looks real enough to touch.
That “Alita” was actually filmed in 3-D is an obvious improvement between its finished product and 3-D films that have been converted during post production. The only other theatrical movie with the dual 4K and true 3-D release was "Passengers" (2016), starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Many studios have abandoned 3-D for home viewing since most 4K TVs manufactured in the last two years are not equipped with 3-D technology. To really experience 3-D, you need a supersize setup and projectors are the only display still providing the means.
Oddly, the 1080p disc does not have a Dolby Atmos track. It’s an excellent Dolby TrueHD 7.1 channel soundtrack, with clearly delivered dialogue, surround effects, and score by lone gun artist Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg), a Grammy nominated producer, musician and composer, who combines his love of classical and pop for original scores. He also plays keyboards, guitar, drums, violin and bass. His next project is “Terminator: Dark Fate,” planned to debut November 2019. Its story is from James Cameron and stars Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Mackenzie Davis.
The Atmos track found on the 4K and 3-D discs is all we could hope for. Battles and Motorball games provide opportunities for vertical sound, and Atmos delivers. The track is well-balanced and inclusive, without the sudden, unnecessary volume designed to drive neighbors up the wall.
Cameron and Rodriguez always provide a rich bounty of bonus features that entertain and instruct on their presentations. There are interviews, a Q&A, and animated sequences designed to explore Alita’s world and characters.
“Alita’s World” provides four animated features – “The Fall,” “Iron City,” “What it Means to be a Cyborg,” and “Rules of the Game.” Each are narrated by one of the major characters.
“From Manga to Screen” documents the transformation from book to screen, with interviews mostly from Cameron, Rodriguez, Landau, and Salazar. Yes, it’s a collection of super-friends in the movie biz, but there’s a lot of information here, too. The “Evolution of Alita” and “Motorball” showcase character and action specifics. “London Screening Q&A”has the filmmakers along with Salazar, Waltz and Connelly answer questions from fans who are watching debut screenings in other parts of the world.
“Scene Deconstruction” highlights specific sequences, allowing viewers to toggle through concept, initial filming and final production of “I Don’t Even Know My Name,” “Just an Insignificant Girl,” “I’m a Warrior, Aren’t I?” and “Kansas Bar.” Rodriguez fans might be stupefied with joy to find his “10 Minute Cooking School" here. This time, we get to learn how to make the humongous chocolate bars seen in the movie.
“My eldest daughter was eight at the time [I discovered 'Alita'], and I was learning how to see the world through the eyes of a young girl, who is fast approaching womanhood. I thought ‘How great would it be to make a movie about that process?’ I’d already sort of done it a little bit with ‘Titanic,’ but I thought ‘Let’s do it in the science fiction domain.’” — James Cameron, filmmaker
So … is “Alita: Battle Angel” good? Yes! It has adventure, heart and lots of soul. Her big eyes have seen a lot, and reveal more during the course of the film. Filmmakers and actors agree, like a pebble dropping into a pond, Alita has a “ripple effect” on everyone she meets. “She may be innocent and naïve, but she’s not dumb. She’s not weak,” Cameron says.
Don’t miss it!
— Kay Reynolds and Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer
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