Marketing-hype phrases like, “From the team that brought you two of the most successful films of all time . . .” and, “From the director of Sin City . . .” carry with them a level of expectation that can end up being too much for a film to live up to. This, in part, was the burden that preceded the release of Alita: Battle Angel, and in some ways parallels another film, Mortal Engines.
Like Engines, Alita burst onto the cinematic consciousness with an impressive trailer that was full of flash and promise, with incredible detail, effects, and world building. It was also based on a story only familiar to hardcore fans—in this case a 1990 Japanese manga series Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita) by Yukito Kishiro.
Alita takes place roughly 550 years in the future, 300 years after a massive interplanetary war known as “The Fall” has devastated much of Earth. While hunting through a scrap yard filled with trash discarded by the last great sky city of Zalem, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the upper half of a large-eyed female cyborg with a fully-functioning human
brain. He brings her home and gives her a body he originally designed years ago for his deceased daughter.
The cyborg (Rosa Salazar), whom Ido names Alita after his daughter, has no memories of her past and spends the film trying to discover who she was (and is), what goes on up in Zalem, and how to survive on the mean streets of Iron City, where Hunter-Warriors, cyborg serial killers, and giant Centurion sentry robots create constant sources of conflict. Along the way, Alita discovers she possesses unique and powerful long-lost fighting skills known as “Panzer Kunst,” as well as an innate ability to play Motorball, a futuristic and far more violent/deadly version of roller derby.
While we typically recommend online versions of films here, especially when downloaded in full resolution from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, this is a case where I’m suggesting you go and purchase the physical 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Why?
For one, 20th Century Fox still refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the lossless Dolby Atmos audio mix with its 4K HDR version, leaving you instead with a much less impressive 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. (I’m hopeful Fox’s recent acquisition by Disney—which does provide Kaleidescape with the best audio elements for all 4K titles—will rectify this going forward.)
For two, the 4K Blu-ray version comes in a three-disc set that includes the Blu-ray disc with tons of extras, a digital download code, and a third disc with a 3D version of the film that is an absolute blast to watch, if your system is capable. Alita was shot natively in 3D, and with James Cameron involved—the guy responsible for what is still widely considered the greatest 3D film experience ever with Avatar—this is worth the price of purchase alone.
Alita was shot in ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, and while it lists the digital intermediate as “master format,” I’m assuming it was taken from a 2K DI. While the film looks gorgeous, it doesn’t exhibit that ultra-fine level of detail in closeups found in true 4K-sourced films. Another mild disappointment is that while some of the movie was filmed in IMAX for its theatrical release, the home version doesn’t include the IMAX-resolution scenes, which are often some of the finest 4K video available.
Those nits aside, Alita frequently fills the screen with eye candy, captivating to look at and behold. Every scene and background bristles with set dressing and design—whether it is machines, buildings, vehicles, or people with a variety of cyborg limbs or appendages, the world of Alita is stunning to see and rich with detail. The film features a fairly drab color palette for many of the daytime outdoor scenes; however, the nighttime scenes exhibit deep, clean black levels, with nice use of HDR highlights in many of the city scenes, with spotlights, signs, and streetlights having extra punch. HDR also benefits the brightly lit interior of the lab of Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and the Motorball arena.
While the film relies heavily on Weta Digital’s computer effects throughout, its greatest effect is Alita, a fully computer-generated character. At first, her significantly oversized eyes and slightly smaller mouth (to reflect her manga origins) make her noticeably different, but the caliber of the CGI work—particularly in her eyes, which are incredibly expressive, emotive and, well, human-looking—is so impressive that you quickly just see Alita as a character. (The only thing that slightly pulled me from my suspension of disbelief was a slight disconnect between Alita’s voice and her mouth. Not that it is out of sync by any means, but just something that my eyes and mind couldn’t fully mesh.)
As good as the 4K HDR version looks, there’s a definite extra dimension (pun definitely intended) that comes from watching the 3D version. Instead of going for gimmicky shots that come out of the screen towards the viewer (and which frequently cause headaches and eye strain), Alita uses 3D to deliver an amazing sense of depth and dimension, with many backgrounds appearing to just go on forever. One of my favorite shots is when Alita comes out of the water inside the United Republics of Mars (URM) ship, with the water shimmering and waving all around her with incredible depth. The many computer screens throughout also benefit from the 3D presentation. There are definite benefits and advantages to watching either the 4K HDR or 3D version, and I’d highly suggest enjoying both.
One drawback of the 3D version is that it replaces the Dolby Atmos soundtrack for the inferior DTS-HD 7.1-channel mix. While still impressive, it didn’t have the depth and immersion of the Atmos soundtrack.
Speaking of the audio, Alita features an active, immersive, reference mix throughout. Whether it is the small, atmospheric background sounds that bring life to scenes, or the big, demo-worthy scenes with their massive audio cues that rip and pound through the room, Alita’s audio mix constantly entertains.
The first major audio moment comes at the 11-minute mark when Alita rescues a dog from a walking Centurion. The mech moves over Alita’s (and your) head, with its feet slamming into the ground, producing concussive bass waves. You clearly hear all the whirrs and hums of the mech’s motor servos and hydraulics as it moves around the room, putting you right in the middle of the action.
Other big reference audio moments include Alita’s first fight, in an alley, at the 27-minute mark, the Motorball stadium at 42-minutes, and the fight with Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) inside the Kansas Bar at little more than an hour in. In these big scenes, you are in a hemispherical audio cocoon, with sounds clearly emanating from all points of the room around you, such as Grewishka’s metal claws launching right past your head and his voice mocking Alita from all around.
Even non-action scenes are filled with sounds, such as the water dripping all around you inside the URM ship, or the sounds of various machines and computers in Ido’s lab.
When you remove the pressure and high expectation that surrounded Alita’s release, in many ways you’re left with exactly the kind of movie that home theater was designed for. It’s big, it’s flashy, it has incredible detail, and it rocks an absolutely reference Dolby Atmos sound mix. Is it a perfect movie? Far from it. But is it a fun movie that will push your display and sound system to their limits, impressing you and your guests in the process? Absolutely.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.