This review of Alita: Passport to Iron City contains minor spoilers.
The year is 2563. My team has just arrived at Iron City, a grungy, unforgiving scrap head of a town crawling with bounty hunters and cyborgs. We approach one of the resident traders. He grabs one of my teammates and massages each of his shoulders, one after the other. “Are they real?” he asks, attempting to gauge our party’s humanity. “Yes,” my teammate replies, “but not these.” He points to his knees and alludes to a pair of real-life knee replacement surgeries. “Ah well,” says the trader, “nobody’s perfect.”
It’s a small, funny moment, but it creates a genuine connection to the strange world we have come to explore. Though Alita’s complete fusion of man and machine will not take place for another 500 years, it seems we’re already well on our way. And if the dark presence of our overseers (known only as The Factory) is any indication, we ought to be careful with our future.
Passport to Iron City is the latest in a recent string of immersive pop-ups funded by major film studios attempting to spread the word about their latest project. In this instance it’s Robert Rodriguez’s $200 million dollar cyberpunk epic Alita: Battle Angel, which opens February 14th. The film is based on Yukito Kushiro’s manga Gunnm, known to English-speaking audiences as Battle Angel Alita. The film is co-produced by James Cameron, whose all-or-nothing approach to world-building and innovation makes this pop-up a natural fit for the movie’s marketing push. The experience was created by iam8bit, a Los Angeles-based production company that has done marketing work for the likes of HBO, Nintendo, Playstation, and Disney.
The experience is part escape room and part board game, peppered with delightful immersive interactions courtesy of a charismatic cast of about fifteen. Upon entering, you are assigned one of ten team colors and given a badge which serves as both the titular passport and the method of collecting credits throughout the game. Each team is composed of six players, and a small prize awaits the winning group.
Before the game begins, you are instructed to convene at the Kansas bar, where you are treated to a selection of beer and wine, including three new beers from Three Weavers Brewing Company created exclusively for the experience. In this seemingly introductory portion, keen-eyed players will discover that the game has already begun. The creators have implemented a simple yet elegant way of encouraging interaction between the teams; a built-in icebreaker that gets the whole room buzzing and smiling.
In fact, this is one of the few escape room-esque experiences that may actually work better with strangers. Escape room veterans may be tempted to bring their A-Team in an attempt to win the night, but may find it ultimately futile, thanks to a clever ending in which anything is possible. Better, then, to simply enjoy your time in the cybernetic playground.
After a somewhat lengthy but necessary breakdown of the game’s rules, you are released into the City and faced with ten unique challenges in the form of self-contained stations. Each requires a vastly different skill set, and the actors make it a point to involve every team member at every station. By warmly and directly inviting each player to contribute, Passport to Iron City easily skirts the central problem of most escape rooms: when one player takes control and leaves the others bored or frustrated. In Alita, you win together, or you lose together.
The most impressive part of Passport to Iron City is the energy and positivity that pervades the two-hour experience. The actors’ enthusiasm never waivers, and if yours does, they’ll make sure to bring your head back into the game. It was exciting to see a large crowd of strangers loudly hollering for their team and genuinely invested in the finale of the experience – a rousing match of Motorball, the beloved pastime of Iron City.
Also on display is the stellar production design, which faithfully captures the dystopian, used-future look of the film. Though Iron City has certainly seen better days, this is not a world of darkness and melancholy. The city is vibrant and colorful, and its inhabitants seem to be making the very best of their situation. It’s a positive, friendly atmosphere that makes Passport to Iron City more than suitable for all ages.
Once the game is over, you are given the opportunity to take pictures with real props from the film – robotic arms, guns, and steampunk goggles – as well as purchase souvenirs from your adventure. Moments later, you find yourself once again out on the streets of industrial downtown Los Angeles (or Austin, or NYC), wishing you had just just a few more minutes in the city, especially if your team finished just short of first place. Wisely, Passport to Iron City includes more challenges than any team could complete in the allotted time, making it somewhat replayable.
Passport to Iron City is a surprising and satisfying experience – a far cry from similar pop-ups that serve only as a backdrop for Instagram (although it functions perfectly well on that level too!). There is real fun to be had here, and real connections to be made. Not unlike the Battle Angel herself, iam8bit’s creation manages to take the unstoppable marketing machine and turn it into something human.
Passport to Iron City opened January 23rd, 2019, and offers ‘early bird pricing’ through February 13th. Tickets are available here for L.A., Austin, and NYC. Plans for the experience after the 13th have yet to be announced.