In 2000, James Cameron and 20th Century Fox registered domain names for an adaptation of the Japanese manga Gunnm, better known as Battle Angel Alita. Intended as a Titanic follow-up in the early years of the new millennium, Cameron eventually closed in on Avatar, setting out to revolutionize mocap filmmaking and advanced 3D filmmaking. In advance of its release, the media played a sort of doomsday game for the film, as they had for at least half of the films he made. As with Titanic, Avatar ended up the highest grossing film of all time—a record it still holds worldwide.
Avatar jumped into the fire of tentpole spectacles, spreading desire in the film and theatrical-exhibition industries for bigger, better, flashier ways of seeing films. While 3D screenings, IMAX, and the minimalist Dolby Atmos are the most common avenues for audiences to shell out premiums for the fully-loaded option, a new player has entered the game.
Three months ago, I became acquainted with ScreenX, a new entrant to the premium large-format PLF gauntlet. While that presentation was underwhelming—especially for the IMAX-filmed Bohemian Rhapsody—CJ CGV, the South Korean theater chain that developed ScreenX, is rolling out its decade-old flagship PLF, the augmented-reality powered 4DX, on its biggest scale yet in the United States.
“2D only goes so far,” Sarah Edge, a representative at the 4DX Lab in Hollywood, told me. “I would say that 4DX is the ultimate in immerviseness [sic]. For anybody who watches a 4DX film, [you’re] gonna feel, ‘I can’t be any more in the movie than I am right now,’ because [you] can feel everything on the screen.”
Entering the 4DX Lab.
I’m here to see Alita: Battle Angel, as the presumed-abandoned Cameron project has been slightly retitled. Edge couldn’t have been more right about the thought of 4DX. While I didn’t feel the water effects, the 4DX Lab’s private theater is equipped with seats that rock and roll more than the more commercially familiar D-BOX format. Winds are simulated by two large fans gusting to the face. Electric shocks and lightning bolts are represented by eight strobe lights equipped on the sides of the theater. To capture the dark, drab future of Alita’s 26th century dystopia, fog machines emit thick but not overwhelming clouds of dry ice.
With Avatar, Cameron successfully pried 3D from the notion of kitsch. The 1950’s and 1980’s had seen a less sophisticated iteration of stereoscopic filmmaking mostly reserved for cheap-thrill science fiction and horror efforts. As the 2010’s began, 3D had become a new normal. Meanwhile, the “4D” concept was still gimmickry. Sensory filmmaking had been the pride and joy of B-movie showman William Castle not long after the first 3D craze had ended. In 1981, John Waters infamously ushered out his comedy Polyester with the scratch-and-sniff accompaniment “Odorama.”
Robert Rodriguez, Alita’s director and co-writer, took a cue from these filmmakers for 2011’s Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, shot in 3D and presented in theaters in the Odorama kindred “Aroma-Scope.” However, he hasn’t had a film come out in anything like 4DX.
Edge cited last year’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout and its intense HALO jump sequence as a great example of the 4DX technology in action. In her view, rightfully so, 4DX is an invitation to adventure. She explained:
The 4DX chairs [mimicked] that skydive motion, by heaving and pitching back and forth to make you feel like, “Oh my god, I’m falling. It’s really about making the audience feel like they’re really with this character now, thick and thin. Like, they’re in danger, I’m in danger. I think audiences are looking for that… [to] help people see, “This is how much more realistic your movie can be in 4DX.”
The growing footprint of 4DX
Six hundred theaters are equipped with 4DX worldwide. However, only 13 of them reside in the United States. 4DX has a lucrative deal with Regal Cinemas, who opened the first American 4DX theater at the chain’s L.A. LIVE cinema in downtown Los Angeles in 2014. In 2016, Regal brought 4DX to their two major New York City theaters: the E-Walk Stadium in Times Square and the Union Square Stadium 14. 4DX is offered by Regal in other cities such as Seattle and Orlando; Marcus Theatres, a chain in the Midwest, has a 4DX hub in the suburbs of Chicago.
Acknowledging the “growing footprint” of 4DX in the United States, Edge said that 89 more locations are planned to open in the near future. She is glowingly optimistic about 4DX, going as far as to say that “some discussions” with filmmakers to considering utilizing native 4DX in pre-production. Much as IMAX evolved from shorter documentary and concert subjects to features, 4DX intends to do the same.
“Our trajectory is yes,” Edge said.
She acknowledged that Rodriguez, who has seen films in 4DX before, “can’t imagine what it’s gonna be like” regarding seeing Alita: Battle Angel in the format. Without putting words in the From Dusk Till Dawn director’s mouth, I myself cannot begin to grasp how satisfied Rodriguez will be with it.
Much like Titanic and Avatar, Alita: Battle Angel had its release date changed three times before settling into the prime Valentine’s Day leg of the yearlong blockbuster season. Droves of comments bemoaned the trailers’ visual effects glimpses and odd tonal presentation. Is this a Hunger Games cash-in? A human-robot romance with action? Those tuned out of Cameron’s long association with the project were likely confused as well.
A few words about the film
What isn’t confusing to say is how good Alita is. It’s a satisfying blockbuster that pivots Rodriguez’s do-it-yourself roots to an involving, entertaining tentpole. Its plot is more complicated than the plight of the cyborg (Rosa Salazar). Yes, the basics get her to the caring father figure (an empathetic Christoph Waltz) and her first love (Keean Johnson). However, there is far more to the universe: her human brain drives her towards a crisis of humanity and existence as she ascends to love, bounty hunting, and a corrupt sport called Motorball.
Beneath the film’s PG-13 rating and colorful posters, a brutal but humane cyberpunk parable comes to life. Rodriguez never sugarcoats the ideology of dystopia. The aforementioned existentialism and gladiator combat recall classics like RoboCop and Rollerball to an eloquence that avoids tackiness. Alita‘s gloomy production design and aesthetic harken back to sci-fi from three decades ago, but it’s his emulation of the gritty aesthetic that Cameron brought to The Terminator and Aliens that makes the film so compelling. Fate never plays nice; the world of Iron City holds on by one finger, plagued with crime and murder.
Further, his work with Weta Digital’s visual effects is incredible. The mocap for Alita and other cyborgs is as photoreal as ever: side by side, its cyborg characters easily stand their own against humans. Alita is a phenomenal use of motion capture, with her human likeness lacking the uncanny-valley appearance of early trailers. Filmed in Rodriguez’s stomping grounds of Austin, Texas, the practical sets are immense and gorgeous, a reality-grounded counterpart to the stunning black-and-white visuals of his 2005 Sin City.
Rosa Salazar, in the title role, also harkens back to Cameron’s earlier years. As ass-kicking women become easier to find on screen, it’s hard to remember how characters like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley had informed the limits of masculinity. Salazar’s performance completely buys into this. Her will is as tough as her cybernetic body. She acts with ambition and speaks in persistence. While not without her emotional moments—and her romance with Hugo (Johnson) is a weak thread in the film—Alita’s headstrong fury delivers.
It helps that Rodriguez surrounds Salazar with an embarrassment of riches for a supporting cast: Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, and Eiza Gonzalez stand their own with Salazar. As the chief action heavy, Ed Skrein plays too much with his self-serious Deadpool gusto without laughs. The Lawnmower Man himself, Jeff Fahey, is once again cast by Rodriguez, this time as a cowboy “Hunter-Warrior” accompanied by a fleet of robot dogs.
Then there’s Mahershala Ali. The Oscar winner—who’s likely to add another statue to his mantle in a couple of weeks—is short-changed time as Vector, the corporate scumbag who uses Motorball to further his own agendas and keep Iron City’s population kicked to the streets. Ali is a blast in the role; he brings a coolness to his villainy that’s disarming, suave, and almost entirely performed in postmodern kimonos and suits.
In other words, he plays Wesley Snipes. I don’t mean he’s channeling Snipes or doing an impression. I am convinced that Vector is some entity that got into Wesley Snipes, and Mahershala Ali was added in post-production because Snipes was too cool. Granted, that’s not how it went down, but given how similar the two look, and the fact that Ali once posted a drawing of Snipes as Nino Brown in New Jack City to his Instagram account, Snipes had to have been an inspiration.
Alita loses some footing in the loaded plot and jumbled third act, ending with only some closure. That could change with a sequel, which I hope comes to fruition. For a project bandied about for nearly two decades, Alita: Battle Angel is involving, sensuously triumphant entertainment—especially in 4DX.