Battle Angel: The greatest James Cameron film never made

In case there is any doubt, James Cameron makes good movies, if you are thinking of big budget destructa-thon shit-fests (that you still go to see anyway) that’s Michael Bay. By degrees of contrast Cameron’s megalomaniacal perfectionism is as legendary as Michael Bay’s “Meh, slap some explosions in post, its a living.” approach.

Destructa-thong, patent pending

Destructa-thong, patent pending

Cameron has caught flack for the cheesiness of Titanic and the Disney-esque environmentalism of Avatar. Both de-constructed and analysed more humorously than I even could by Red Letter Media.

What if I told you, for the last 20 years James Cameron has been planning what may be his master-work.

That Avatar, was merely a prototype, a tech demo, a proof of concept to perfect the technology for the film he is intending to make. A prototype that just happened to make 3 Billion dollars.

This movie that has yet to be made, has already changed the technology, the industry and like it or not bought about the modern resurgence of 3D film-making.

A film that if directly adapted from its source material would be a hyper violent epic Science Fiction mixture of Blade Runner, Terminator and Mad Max but uniquely its own world. That film is Battle Angel.

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The Origins

James Cameron isn’t your typical Japanophile anime-manga nerd. He doesn’t read manga, but he did read all of the Battle Angel series. If you like awesome Sci Fi comics and haven’t read Battle Angel Alita you should check it out.
It may be surprising Cameron’s interest in Japanese Sci-Fi animation after making so many modern American Cinema Sci-Fi classics as Terminator 1-2, Aliens and the technical achievement if nothing else of the Abyss have influenced many of the manga, creating a  perfect symbiotic cycle of inspiration.

Most people got their early dose of Japanese Cyber-Punk anime thanks to Cameron, he played a major role in bringing Matsumoto Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell to western audiences back in 1995.

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Pictured: A different naked cyborg comic, Oh Japan…

Ghost in the Shell, ground breaking at the time and is still today a landmark achievement in animations maturation, following in the footsteps of the now legendary epic, Akira.

It was clear the animation, vision and scope of these movies which were primarily made with traditional cell shaded animation and some computer generated elements pushed the boundaries of what was capable at the time.

Cameron took note of the amazing worlds created within these stories, he wanted to capture this in full photorealism with live action however the technology for the story he wanted to tell wasn’t yet perfected.

 

 

The Story

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“Oh look, underneath I found a copy of E.T. for the Atari”

The story of Alita (or Gally as she is known in the Japanese version) is perfect in its simplicity.

In a Town known as The Scrapyard beneath a giant floating city, a scientist with a past, Doc Ido finds the remains of a cyborg girl that he repairs, bringing her back to life.

Alita has no memory, as it happens Doc Ido also works a night job as a bounty hunter. Naturally Alita wants to join him, which he’s reluctant about but figures she’s safer learning how to do the job with him. It turns out she has the memories of a deadly long lost Martian martial art inside her.

Together they tear through the Scrapyard’s cybernetic post apocalyptic psychotics like kittens through tissue paper.

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This super freaky bitch is hipster Hit-Girl to Doc Ido’s Big Daddy.

Alita falls in love with a boy who is tied into some underhanded schemes who is ultimately dragged down by them. To escape her sorrow she throws herself into the Scrapyards version of MMA mixed with roller derby called Motorball and lives only for the rush of battle. While Doc Ido tries to save her from her self destructive path and give her something to live for.

This is all in the first 4 volumes of the manga, I wont spoil the rest of the story but she gets to meet the inhabitants of the floating city, be forced into being their assassin and ultimately conquer her Karma.

It’s a story of love, loss, betrayal and defining who you are and your purpose. What if a gun dreamt it was a person?

It impacted Cameron deeply enough, he keeps coming back to the project. Cameron said the following about it;

“The themes of trans-human evolution in Battle Angel have haunted me for years.”

-James Cameron

The Design

The Scrapyard and the hanging city of Tiphares (by Desdinova84)

The Scrapyard and the hanging city of Tiphares (by Desdinova84)

Visually Yukito Kishiro’s manga has an insane level of detail and the design ethic is as fresh as it was 20 years ago. Due to health reasons he prematurely concluded the story and then continued it in the series Last Order.

He puts so much effort and detail into each panel it boggles the mind

Kishiro’s work is overflowing with pop culture influence in its artworks ironically including James Cameron’s movies. Its often referencing obscure technology, philosophy and design elements that mirror the Scrapyard the story grows from.

 

The Action

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The Scrapyard, running a rusty blade

There’s bounty hunting, cyborgs performing martial arts (guns are outlawed within the scrapyard), the lethal cyborg formula 1 sport of Motorball. There is plenty to keep your pulse rate up and your eyes happy, but conversely enough of an interesting setting to not suffer from Bay’s explosion fatigue.

This will be the film to really put the Punk back in Cyber, channelling that brash energy to the screen is exactly what Cameron’s career direction is needing.Think of Scorcese’s The Departed or Kinji Fukusaku’s Battle Royale being made with the electricity and enthusiasm of a film student in their 20s not what you would expect from directors in their 70’s.

This could be that project for Cameron and by the time it gets made some time in 2020 he might be around that age and ready to show that he can make a huge budget passion project movie that innovates with energy not just technology.

 The Comic

Except with slightly more wailing and screaming than Take On Me

Except with slightly more wailing and screaming than Take On Me

There are action set-pieces that melt your face off even in the panels of the manga.

Long before the terms of decompressed storytelling or wide-screen comics were a twinkle in Morrison and Ellis’s eyes Kishiro was doing it for real.

Kishiro’s use of form and motion brings the kinetics of the action panels to life. They almost fly off the page at you like they are in 3d.

Incidentally, for better or worse, the huge push in 3d film making within the industry has been precipitated by Cameron’s drive getting the technology right to make this movie must have been inspired in part by the action leaping from the frames of the comic.
When reading the Motorball sequences in book 3 of Battle Angel, my heart starts pounding, I start burning through the frames quicker and I’m drawn into the what’s unfolding like a nightmare version of that Aha video.

 

 

The Film

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Now that’s a knife!

Its my strong hope it’s not overly diluted in its transition from manga to film, the story goes some very graphic and twisted places and as much of this as the rating allows should be left in, it’s a dystopian as fuck setting, it’s necessary to the story.

Just go back to Mad Max 3 and WaterWorld if you need a reminder that family friendly post apocalyptic movies are not a good mix.

I do understand however to reach a wider level of appeal it will need to lose some of the more stomach turning aspects. Maybe it will get round this with predominantly cyborg vs cyborg action, much in the way Transformers had robots ripping each-other to bits without the ratings boards going nuts.

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“They see me rollin, they hatin”

It is reassuring Cameron’s vision for the movie follows the first several books of Battle Angel as closely enough as an adaptation can while making a good movie:

“What I’m going to do is take the spine story and use elements from the first four books. So, the Motorball from books three and four, and parts of the story of one and two will all be in the movie “

-James Cameron

It also tracks alongside Cameron’s history with presenting strong female characters as leads, Alita would be without a doubt the toughest and most ruthless he has brought to screen.

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Dressed for Battle

He has by his own admission become sidetracked with Avatar 2 and 3, primarily due to his interest as an environmentalist and the impact he can have with making those films. Fair enough, if those movies make a difference to peoples outlook on the environment that can only be a good thing. Hopefully Avatar 2-3 will be shot back to back to free him up to make Battle Angel.

Will he let someone else direct the Battle Angel project as he is committed to the Avatar films for the next 5 years or so?

“It would have to be pried out of my cold dead fingers…

…But on the other hand, I don’t want to take it to my grave either. [We want to see it] at some point, yeah.”

-James Cameron

So that’s a “Fuck no” to delegation then, I’m glad, I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it either.

Stay awesome Cameron, I want to see Battle Angel get made.

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