Be sure to check out Oktay Ege Kozak’s full review of Alita: Battle Angel, and beware of spoilers in this discussion of that movie and the earlier anime, too.
It seems likely that an enthusiastic young cohort of moviegoers is going to look back on Alita: Battle Angel with a distinct fondness, that ridiculously committed cosplayers are going to strap on purple exoskeleton armor and mock-up glowing plasma swords at many a con to come. I try not to be a cynic about new movies, but seeing a CG-fest headlined by James Cameron, based on anime, right on the heels of one very poorly received entry from that genre, I was ready to hear some familiar laments from fans.
Thus far, Alita has garnered mixed reviews. I agree with our own Oktay Ege Kozak’s review, which points out some considerable imperfections in this story of a mysterious cyborg girl learning her purpose in life. There’s a lot of borrowed furniture from pillars of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cinema like Blade Runner and Mad Max, and the eponymous heroine’s love interest is such a mediocre bore that you wonder why on Earth a young lady with a résumé as impressive as Alita’s is ready to literally hand him her heart.
Yet, Rotten Tomatoes gives it an audience score of 94 percent as of this writing, way out of proportion with the muddled reviews, and Twitter has plenty to say on the matter.
The common thread running through a lot of the praise seems to be that the story of a little cyborg girl finding her purpose in life is pretty cool when her purpose in life is to rip and tear through robot assassins, a promise director Robert Rodriguez manages to deliver on while also giving us great performances, real heart, and a somewhat faithful (if very busy) adaptation of the source material.
Adapting the successful manga Gunnm, with a lot of narrative structure taken from an hour-long , two-part 1993 anime adaptation, Alita: Battle Angel is also receiving a lot of love from beleaguered fans of anime who are calling it a faithful adaptation. It is certainly somewhat more faithful than others have been, especially in light of the fact that time and again, we see terrible live-action adaptations, or just the looming threat of them.
We’ve written here at Paste about why some anime adaptations are just futile to begin with. Besides that thorough analysis of why Ghost in the Shell resists adaptation, you could just as easily point to the proposed Akira adaptation of a few years ago.
The bizarre choice to set that Akira adaptation in the United States and to make it vaguely be about 9/11 was tone-deaf cultural misappropriation of the highest order that would require a whole other article to break down, but suffice it to say: Akira the anime film is a story grounded in the existential malaise of a rapidly industrializing 1980s Japan in the midst of major socioeconomic changes, all in the wake of the fear of nuclear disaster. It’s not a milieu that easily lends itself to a palette swap in the way that, let’s say, the Edo Period and the Wild West so often do.
Hollywood so often goes directly for the simplest and least challenging path to adapting stories, despite mountains of evidence that more daring adaptation (and thus more heartfelt movies) are the ones that folks are more likely to support. Blade Runner takes little more than the germ of its idea from the original novel, not even bothering to take its ungainly title. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is a particular and unique interpretation of Batman and conquered genre fiction while it was running.
In Alita’s case, two major things work in its favor, starting with the story on offer. A discarded cyborg girl lands in a trash heap, recovered by the kindly Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), who repairs her. Working through her amnesia, she discovers that Ido is one of a secret class of hunter-warriors who police the streets by collecting bounties on murderous cyborgs. She also discovers that buried beneath her amnesia is the muscle memory of an ass-kicking anti-robo martial artist, and that she can use this to beat the sin out of her hulking foes and get paid handsomely for it.
All of this transpires in a post-apocalyptic world where a callous ruling class lives in a floating city, dumping its refuse on the plebes below and dangling the possibility of citizenship in front of the noses of the under-class while also murdering any who try to sneak in. I can’t find it in myself to be facetious about any of that, so I’ll just say: It’s relevant. As is the narrative’s central focus on a young woman who is literally figuring out her body and her purpose, in defiance of shadowy players who are bent on controlling both to nefarious ends. All of that remained intact in this live-action adaptation.
Secondly, it works because the team behind it, directors and writers and actors all, seem to have earnestly given a sh*t, both about making a coherent movie and making a recognizable adaptation. Alita’s features put her just inside the uncanny valley, all the more because the other cyborgs in the film are topped with human heads that don’t have huge manga eyes, but there’s no denying the sincerity and heart of Rosa Salazar’s performance and their fidelity to the original character. The majority of her fellow cast members are just as committed, with Waltz and Jennifer Connelly’s Chiren spouting batsh*t proper nouns like “Hunter-warrior,” “Panzer Kunst” and “Motorball” with relish, and Mahershala Ali continuing to prove he belongs in every movie with his portrayal of not one but two villains.
If anything, it is at times too faithful to its source material, as in a couple scenes where it goes for a shot-for-shot remake and can’t pull off the same gravitas. The film works much better when it lets Alita murder huge robo-mercenaries with her plasma karate chops and monomolecular-edged katana—good clean fun that’s right out of the manga and earlier anime.
We’re unlikely to get a sequel based on the film’s performance (and Cameron and Rodriguez seem to have known this—the movie crams a lot of stuff from the Gunnm story here while they could). Even debuting at #1 on its opening weekend, it headlined the worst winter box office in eight years, and has yet to make its budget back even after foreign dollars have started pouring in. Still, it’s the only live-action anime adaptation I can remember that’s ever been met with any degree of enthusiasm by those who showed up. It’s a low bar to clear, but Alita: Battle Angel is now the live-action anime adaptation to beat.
Kenneth Lowe didn’t want your life to turn toward the shadows. He’s also been published in Colombia Reports, Escapist Magazine and Illinois Issues. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.