“Polar” and “Alita: Battle Angel” are two movies based on comics whose trailers are making the rounds. But that’s about the only thing these two very different projects have in common.
“Polar” has already arrived on Netflix, based on graphic novels by Spanish writer/artist Victor Santos. Oddly, while Dark Horse publishes those graphic novels — five of them, so far — “Polar” began life as a web comic. And not just any web comic, but one without any dialogue whatsoever.
Santos added words when Dark Horse came calling, but it’s still pretty easy to follow the story without the dialogue — which, to be honest, is pretty minimal anyway. That fits, though, because minimalism is a good word to apply to “Polar” in a myriad of ways.
Color, for example. It’s mostly black and white, with splashes of orange for dramatic effect. If that sounds familiar, it’s very much like Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” which was largely black and white with splashes of red for dramatic effect.
Which is not to say “Polar” is a rip-off — it’s certainly not. But “Sin City” is certainly in its DNA. While Santos has said in interviews that he’s channeling a lot of manga influence, what is most evident to my eye are European and South American influences, with a whole lot of the old ultra-violence, present in comics around the world.
Oh, and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Polar” is about a fifty-something, eyepatch-wearing assassin who is really good at hand-to-hand combat, all sorts of weaponry and high-tech espionage. Sound familiar? It really snaps into focus when you toss in the name “Jim Steranko,” who drew (and often wrote) the most famous adventures of Nick Fury, the fifty-something, eyepatch-wearing superspy who is really good at hand-to-hand combat, all sorts of weaponry and high-tech espionage.
Which, again, is not to suggest that “Polar” is some sort of hybrid swipe. It’s very much its own animal, a violent, fast-moving story about an assassin who comes in from the cold — literally, since much of the action takes place in the snowy landscape of Montana in winter — when someone tries to assassinate him.
Duncan “Black Kaiser” Vizla tracks backward to whoever put out the hit, leaving dead and dismembered professional killers, smarmy double-crossers and red-shirt henchmen in his wake. Ultimately, the story’s real foundation is neo-noir, as it is a long, bleak battle in the shadows that includes, of course, a femme fatale.
Which is a basic description of “Polar” the movie, as well. But there’s a lot more going on in the Netflix effort, possibly because the Kaiser’s grunts, snarls and monosyllabic replies couldn’t carry a whole movie. There’s a big role for Vanessa Hudgens (“Powerless”) that isn’t in “Polar Vol. 1: Came from the Cold.” The femme fatale isn’t a hand-to-hand combat specialist as in the comics, and is instead a flamboyant fashionista (with some odd hobbies), played by Katheryn Winnick of “Vikings” fame. And there is no mystery in the film as to who wants the Kaiser dead: It’s his fat, perverted boss Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas) instead of the skinny, perverted Mr. Blut in the comics.
But “Polar” is worth a watch even if you’ve read the comics — and if you have a strong stomach. American audiences are probably inured to bone-crunching, artery-spurting violence by now, but “Polar” goes one step further with an extended, graphic torture sequence that is a good time for most people — myself included — to take a bathroom break.
Still, one must expect stuff like that in today’s revenge-fantasy entertainments, and it is largely redeemed by the beautiful cinematography and outstanding acting. Not only are Winnick, Hudgens and Lucas engaging (for different reasons, of course) but Mads Mikkelson’s Scandinavian reserve brings a cold, quiet, terrifying center to the central role, about which everyone and everything else revolves.
In contrast, the central character in “Alita: Battle Angel” isn’t quiet at all — although she’s an amnesiac cyborg, she’s also, essentially, a teenage girl. And instead of the still, white landscape of modern-day Montana, “Alita” takes place a few hundred years in the future, mostly in the visually busy, city-size slum/garbage dump called The Scrapyard (“Iron City” in the movie, which the comics tell us is the former site of Kansas City, Mo.).
“Alita” began life as “Gunnm” (meaning “gun dream” and pronounced, I think, “ganmu”) in the Japanese comic book “Business Jump” in 1990, by writer/artist Yukito Kushiro. It was extremely popular, running nine volumes, with — as of this writing — two sequels, “Battle Angel Alita: Last Order” and “Battle Angel Alita: Martian Chronicle.”
And it’s popular for a reason. Kushiro’s art is on the more realistic side of manga, but still incorporates the pell-mell action and inventive world-building for which Japanese comics and cartoons (called anime) are famous. And it’s beautifully detailed — both the lushly rendered art, which is worth lingering over, and the writing, to which Kushiro has given a lot of thought (reflected in the many footnotes and explainers). Currently most of “Alita” is in print in the U.S. in traditional back-to-front, right-to-left format, and is a journey well worth taking.
The story is this: Gally (translated to “Alita” for U.S. audiences) is an ancient cyborg found by the enigmatic cyberphysician Daisuke Ido. Named for Ido’s cat (which is male — and dead), Gally is restored to full physical function, but her memories are irretrievably lost. The only clue to her origin is her instinctive knowledge of the lost martial art Panzer Kunst (German for “Art of the Tank”), which makes her one of the most formidable fighters in the Scrapyard.
That leads her to becoming a “Hunter-Warrior,” essentially a mercenary bounty hunter that brings in the heads of murderous cyborgs. From there, the story opens up considerably, as Gally becomes a champion of motorball (the most popular sport in The Scrapyard); goes to the floating, utopian city of Tiphares (“Zalem” in the U.S. translations); enjoys a rapidly expanding supporting cast; and ultimately meets her nemesis, the almost unkillable Desty Nova (a name taken from a Blue Öyster Cult song).
The movie will speed up Alita’s journey considerably. In addition to Ido (given the first name Dyson in the movie, and played by Christoph Waltz), we’ll meet illegal body-parts broker Vector (Mahershala Ali), Alita’s first crush Hugo (Keean Johnson), shutterbug buddy Koyomi (Lana Condor) and rival Hunter-Warrior Zapan (Ed Skrein).
The “Alita” character list is missing some pretty big names, including Alita’s first major enemy, Makuka; Ido’s buddy/partner cyberveternarian Gonzu; most of her motorball teammates and opponents; and Desty Nova. It’s possible that many of those characters will inhabit some of the unfamiliar names on that list. Jackie Earle Haley is in the film, too, in an undisclosed role — a name big enough name to play Desty Nova, so hmmm.
As to our cyborg gal, she will be fully CGI, albeit based on motion-capture (Rosa Salazar is credited as the character). The rest of the cast is all live-action, so the movie itself is sort of a cyborg hybrid, reflecting its central character.
So, there are a few more similarities one can find between “Polar” and “Alita” besides being comics-based. Both are action-packed and fast-moving, like their source material. And both diverge from their source material story-wise, meaning that enjoying one won’t necessarily spoil the other.
And both are upon us. “Polar” is already available on Netflix, while “Alita: Battle Angel” arrives Valentine’s Day. In between, you can read the comics.