When Alita: Battle Angel landed in cinemas, it did decent business, but still fell short of commercial expectations – but it’s the kind of big, ambitious sci-fi film that needs friends.

An acknowledgement from the off: Alita: Battle Angel is an imperfect movie. The dialogue feels a bit stilted and on the nose at times, there’s a little too much emphasis on setting up what would have been the next movie, rather than working with the one in front of us. Plus, it does sag a bit from time to time. I confess too that I never read the source manga series, so I can’t tell you how faithful or otherwise it is to its source.

Yet, having finally (and I’m coming to that) watched the film over the past few days, I’m struck by how unusual it is. That it’s just the sort of bold, expensive science fiction movie that’s I fear may become an endangered species, if it hasn’t already. And I for one am glad that it got through the increasingly risk-averse Hollywood system.

The movie, as is well known, was long on the docket of James Cameron, even around the time that he was making his Oscar-winning juggernaut, Titanic. He pursued Avatar over Battle Angel next, and when that became the-then biggest movie of all time, he opted to develop its sequels.

Battle Angel got pushed again. But crucially, Cameron had just made a film that had grossed nearly $3bn worldwide, and thus his Fox deal held. And it was under that umbrella that he kept Battle Angel bubbling along. Only a handful of filmmakers had that power, he was one of them.

Having penned the screenplay for the film, along with Laeta Kalogridis, Cameron figured that to get the film moving, someone else was going to have to direct. Thus, in 2015, word came through that Robert Rodriguez was going to direct the film. Fox was still wary of the budget, although the eventual movie would ultimately still cost the $170m the studio was wary of spending. And you can’t deny that money made it to the screen.

Alita: Battle Angel writer and producer, James Cameron, with director Robert Rodriguez

For the first hour of Alita: Battle Angel, I found myself utterly drawn in by just what a clearly huge and fascinating production this was. That what we were seeing felt a little different, and that the sheer visual creativity, and the creation of a run-down future, was quite something.

I’m a sucker for world-building in big screen science fiction films at the best of times (it’s something I think the heavily-maligned Total Recall redo gets right for instance, before it goes heavily off the rails in its second half), and I really think that Alita: Battle Angel excels at it.

Here, the marriage of digital and practical felt seamless, and the vision of the year 2563 was quite wonderfully realised. The copious amount of design pre-production work that must have gone into this is boggling. There’s a degree of snobbishness sometimes about modern sci-fi I find from time to time, but here I could happily have freeze-framed time and time again just to try and take it all in.

What’s more, it’s a real skill, I think, to make a new world feel accessible and interesting from the opening of a movie. And to sink viewers into a film that takes us to somewhere else way in the future, with entirely new characters, and without a well-known franchise to call back on is really very welcome.

In particular, when the film goes into the outdoors, I felt it really soared. There’s a shot in the first half of the movie – and I’m going spoiler light – where a conversation is taking place in the foreground, and several levels of the rundown future world are in the background, each crammed and active. I was really taken aback by just how well it was all realised, and how bustling with human life too. I’m perfectly aware that lots of the humans were put into the frame digitally, but this is one of those rare instances – aside from the crowds at the sporting games – where I wasn’t thinking about that during the film.

Instead, I can’t help but think that Alita spent some of its sizeable budget on something simple, too: human beings. The foregrounds bustle with life, streets are over-crammed, and the whole place feels alive.

There’s a further sequence early on too where our protagonist, Alita, is still unaware as to what she can do. Here, a very evolved ED-209-esque creature is coming down the street, and a small, but hugely impressive, action sequence plays out. For large parts of the film, it skirts the line between digital and human beings surprisingly well, and here they come together strongly.

Rose Salazar as Alita in Alita: Battle Angel

Lots of what sits within this world – and the film as a whole – is pretty standard by way of blockbuster cinema. Those sports moments, for instance, are all perfectly entertaining and well realised, but they feel like sequences in a videogame to me when you want to explore, but aren’t that bothered for the time being about pursuing the main quest. A more violent Quidditch, if you will.

I tend to be quite impatient when big movies faff around with special effects-driven segues, and yet it all felt absorbing and a place I wanted to know more about. Crucially, with a central character in the world who was

And here’s the film’s other key trump card. The performance of Rose Salazar as Alita. I remember the hoots of derision at the original trailer for the film at the look of her character. As is often the case, in context, that’s all very wide of the mark. The creation of her character – whilst leaving room for humanity to breathe through – was quite something. It’s hard to lock into and like a protagonist this quickly, but Salazar really got something across. All the more impressive considering the bustle going on around her too.

What an ensemble beyond her the film attracts, too. Christoph Waltz may have been infamously frosty on the press tour for the film, but there’s little doubting his ability when the camera was turned on. Appreciating some of the appearances in the film are surprises too, there’s a bunch of actors with small, important roles too. That an effort and a half had been made to give everything some gravitas.

It genuinely felt to me like a world that was going on, whether the characters and the camera were there or not. I was really taken with it, warts and all.

Ed Skrein and Rose Salazar in Alita: Battle Angel

Reviews for the film were okay, and rightly pointed out problems with the story not quite matching up to the visuals. I think the plot is perfectly sound, but it’s hard to argue too much with that. Yet I do think there’s a fair bit more here than it was necessarily given credit for. The narrative may feel familiar, but it serves the film comfortably enough.

Put into the context of modern cinema, the movie is one of a dwindling collection of productions of this ilk, too. Think back to features such as Pacific Rim and Mortal Engines, and it’s clear just what a gamble it is for studios to try a major, expensive science fiction movie. And there are decreasing numbers of companies looking to write massive cheques to have a go themselves.

Times have changed, of course. There was a period in the 1990s and early 2000s where special effects was sufficient box office collateral, and studios realised there was a universal appeal to computer graphics. Since then, of course – courtesy in part down to drab movies that have leant on CG over a good script – things have moved on. Now it’s superheroes and franchises, which makes the decision to even press ahead with Alita something of an anomaly in modern cinema.

After all, you press ahead with a project based on source material that the mass market is unaware of, and that’s your marketing spend doubled for a start. How many studios are going to risk that, when such projects now struggle to offer a financial return? The only one I can think of that managed to do so was Ready Player One, which had Spielberg behind it. Even then, its returns were good, but well down on those you’d get for making even a weak superhero film.

In the case of Alita: Battle Angel, the film didn’t break $100m in the US – coming in at $85m – and it took a hefty take outside America to get it to the $404m it made. Tellingly, even appreciating that blockbuster films are spread around the calendar, Fox put the movie out in February (three weeks ahead of Captain Marvel). It never came across as outright confident in the film’s commercial possibilities.

The ink was being aimed at the film before it had made it into cinemas, though, with one headline suggesting it was set to lose $200m for Fox even before the movie had landed in cinemas. Any chance of a sequel disappeared with that $400m take, such were the stakes involved. Even if James Cameron was set to direct the planned and setup sequel, it’s hard to see Disney being interested.

And the problem is that the films of this ilk cost so much to realise, they need heftier returns to justify the expense. Sure, there are clever, economic ways to put across the future – just look at Gareth Edwards’ superb Monsters – but I love the screen being filled with a detailed future world, and I appreciate that costs a lot of money.

Increasingly, too, I appreciate that audiences tend to be less keen than me.

Still, I ordered a copy of Mortal Engines as soon as the credits rolled, a project that too required the clout of a major filmmakers to simply get made. In the case of that film, it was Peter Jackson, and whilst it’s a discussion that neither Cameron not Jackson opted to direct a pair of films that clearly mattered to them a great deal, they still made them exist.

It’s doubtful, given changing circumstances, whether they could do so again. Cameron’s deal was with Fox, the studio he’s called home since 1995’s True Lies. Fox is now Disney, of course, and thus it’s likely to be Avatar all the way for him anyway. As for Jackson, the disappointing box office of Mortal Engines means Universal is unlikely to write him another nine figure cheque anytime soon.

I don’t suggest for a minute giving these films a free pass. They still have to earn audience attention, and cash. But – and I’ve tried to go spoiler-light – I count Alita: Battle Angel as a very pleasant surprise.

Inevitably, all eyes go next to Denis Villeneuve, who is perhaps the last director standing – Nolan apart – who a studio will trust with a nine figure cheque to bring a risky, major science fiction project (that doesn’t have superheroes in it). Touch wood that Dune delivers – but in the meantime, do give Alita: Battle Angel some of your time if you haven’t already.

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