Alita: Battle Angel is hands down the best manga/anime to live-action film the West has produced yet. Granted, that bar isn’t hard to leap over with Dragonball Evolution, Priest, and Ghost in the Shell crawling through the mud. But what Robert Rodriguez and star Rosa Salazar did to bring the world of Alita to life makes this movie stand far above the rest. It’s not perfect by any means, but there’s a lot to love in this futuristic coming of age story that stays close to the spirit of the original manga, as best it can.
The Battle Angel: Alita saga is a long running mainstay in the cyberpunk genre, emanating from the far east right alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira. The original manga, Battle Angel: Alita (Gunnm in Japan) was created by Yukito Kishiro in 1990. The manga’s original run ended in 1995 due to the author’s illness at the time. Years later Kishiro continued the story from a different point in the plot, called it Battle Angel Alita: Last Order and continued past that point with Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle. Old school anime lovers might still have an ancient VHS copy of the OVA (original video animation) which was based off the first two volumes of the story, and compressed into two half hour bite sized chunks. If you were a budding anime fan in the 90s, Battle Angel was on the shelf at the Blockbuster right next to Vampire Hunter D, Robot Carnival, and Project A-Ko, and rented just as often.
Alita: Battle Angel takes elements and characters from both the original manga and the OVA and squishes them into a two hour run-time. The movie revolves around Alita (Rosa Salazar), an amnesiac cyborg found in a scrapheap by the kindly cyber-physician Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Cyborgs are commonplace in this near future and the good doctor sees to putting the remains of Alita into a new, ornamented body.
Alita is reborn and experiences the world of Iron City under the looming shadow of the glittering sky city Zalem for seemingly the first time. Iron City is depicted just as it is in the comic. The streets are lined with old architecture from before The Fall, a cataclysmic war that devastated the Earth. These shells of buildings form a base from which more futuristic tech springs forth. It’s a lived-in, worn-down city by day, a nightmarish, lawless neon underworld by night. The mystery and wonder of Zalem looms above, a constant reminder during the movie that the inhabitants of Iron City are firmly under their thumb.
Along the way, Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), your typical street rat with a dark secret, Vector (Mahershala Ali) a ruthless boss in charge of the Iron City’s favorite source of bloody entertainment: Motorball, and Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) another gifted cyber-physican with a past connected to Ido. Alita is portrayed as naive to the world around her, but not dumb, and she’s quick to find her moral core. She starts to regain pieces of her lost memories, but it’s not long before her past as a warrior comes back to test her.
Rosa Salazar shines as Alita and is the main draw of the film as everything hinges on her and her performance under the CGI. Salazar’s facial and body language keep Alita grounded in this world, and prevent her from becoming a computer generated hell-spawn from the depths of the uncanny valley. Weta Workshop, who’s work on Planet of the Apes, Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and District 9 find themselves with the perfect project to bring nearly entirely CGI characters to life. From Alita herself to the other variously shaped cyborgs in Iron City, everyone feels like a real flesh and blood/chrome inhabitant of this rusty world.
The rest of the cast does their best around Salazar, but Waltz and Connelly are the only other members of the cast that are given enough time to show why they were picked for their respective roles. Waltz is a perfect fit for Ido, able to shift his performance between a doctor with a double life hardened by a cruel existence in Iron City, and a caring surrogate father for Alita. Connelly is cold and determined as Chiren, and uses what little screen time she has to make her mark.
But characters like Vector are one note, and a waste of Ali’s time. Jackie Earle Haley is unrecognizable under his CGI, and it wastes his talents as hard as when Oscar Issacs was turned into a Purple-People-Eater in X-Men: Apocalypse. As a character, Hugo is just as punchable as he is in the manga and OVA and that’s not a good thing. The other characters peppered through the movie also exist but might as well be cardboard cut outs as they don’t matter at all. The biggest change comes with a surprise character, who deviates so far from their manga counterpart they become a distorted reflection of what that character should represent.
Robert Rodriguez’ vision behind the Alita: Battle Angel is what keeps this movie together. This movie couldn’t have been made the way it was without his eye for the fantastic. The fight scenes are kinetic and you feel every impact of Alita’s fists. There isn’t anyone else that could have brought Motorball to life, aside from possibly the Wachowski siblings a la Speed Racer. But Rodriguez understands the grittiness of Alita’s world even while being slightly hamstrung by a PG-13 rating. He knew to keep the fights street level, make every hit count, and show the brutal consequences of this city as bloodlessly as he could. It’s obvious telling this story was a labor of love for Rodriguez and it shows in his devotion to recreating pivotal moments from the manga with his own signature touch.
For the most part, the movie is firmly committed to the source material. The world they set up is straight out of the comics, with many sequences ripped from of the pages of the manga. However, this faithfulness risks alienating those less familiar with the franchise. This is one of the pitfalls of James Cameron’s screenplay; phrases and settings and mechanics directly from the manga are talked about and employed with little to no explanation. Fans of the source material will be pleasantly surprised to see their favorite things like Motorball, and the famed Damascus Blade come to life. However, someone coming at this movie with only a passing (or no) knowledge of the manga will be confused, as the movie does not slow down enough to let them in. Meaty piles of exposition from characters help, but it’s not enough, as the movie has places to go as quickly as possible. This leads to some of the scenes taken from the manga playing out without the appropriate tragedy and weight they should have been allowed.
The pacing of the film also leaves much to be desired. The set pieces themselves are engaging but the viewer is moved along at a rapid pace. It’s not a bad thing to want to spend more time in the world Rodriguez has created, but movie seems to think so. The plot whisks you from one location to the next, often with its own new set of rules, and quicker than the average viewer might be able to keep up with. The lead up to the ending is also not as satisfying or as heart-breakingly tragic as it could have been with more time devoted to showing the toll these events take on certain characters. The ending also sets up an avenue for a sequel in a way that might not let the movie stand on its own as a completed tale.
Alita: Battle Angel will delight long time fans of Yukito Kishiro’s epic cyberpunk tale of love and loss, nature versus nurture. Visually, the attention to detail in the character and world design is top notch. Rosa Salazar’s performance and Robert Rodriguez’ eye for action elevates an otherwise mediocre script coupled with choppy pacing and editing. Those new to the series might be a little lost at first but there is enough action and heartfelt moments to satisfy most audiences.
Verdict: 3.8 out of 5