For years filmmakers have been trying to figure out how to properly adapt an anime film to live-action. Unfortunately, the results are usually lackluster at best, and highly problematic at worst. But! Hollywood seems to be pretty great at adapting comic books and graphic novels, right? Billions of dollars at the box office and the like. So, what about manga? Can Hollywood adapt manga, smart guy?! Well, in the case of Alita: Battle Angel, the answer is visually, absolutely. This is especially true if your director is Robert Rodriguez, who's already proven with Sin City that he can grasp a comic's visual style. Otherwise? Well, your mileage may vary.
Alita is based on the manga (the credits put the word manga in parenthesis after "graphic novel," I guess for people who can't look up words themselves) Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. It tells the story of a distant future sci-fi world where the surface of the Earth is barren save for a single rundown city, over which hovers another city for the wealthy elites. Cybernetic expert Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) one day finds the core of a cyborg in the junkyard whilst he's searching for spare parts. With a little bit of engineering know-how, he gives this cyborg a body, and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She learns quickly, but has no memory of her former life.
A hodgepodge of rundown robotics and organic beings inhabit Iron City, and a mixture of mindless tank bots and awful Hunter-Warriors police the land. Alita quickly learns that she's more than just some random cyborg. She's got the instincts of a warrior herself, and the more she fights, the more she remembers. Ido wants to keep her safe and away from any danger, but that doesn't last too long. Alita then goes on a journey to discover where she came from, and who's to blame for everything. In the meantime, she meets a hunky scrap collector named Hugo (Keean Johnson) who introduces her to the most dangerous sport in the world: Motorball, a game where cyborgs are routinely utterly destroyed. Naturally, Alita's pretty good at that too.
As I said earlier, the visuals are stunning, with great action and truly brutal fight scenes. If you've ever wanted to see metallic beings with very human heads and faces get torn to shreds before your eyes, this is the movie for you. One particular battle toward the middle of the film perfectly encapsulates Alita's resilience and the fragility of the cybernetic form. It's quite something, and for all its heavy action thereafter, the movie never quite feels as urgent or as dangerous. So it works on that level quite well, and Salazar's performance behind all the CGI is incredibly steely yet vulnerable.
But then we have some pesky stuff called "dialogue" and "character," both nemeses of Alita's producer and co-writer James Cameron. Though he and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis have the framework of the manga to draw from, their characters are almost always speaking about the plot, or explaining sci-fi terms the audience isn't familiar with. It's leaden, irony-free, and often a big pile of hokum, but the cast--which also includes Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, and Ed Skrein--do their best with what they're given. The audience either has to go along with it or not, depending on how averse you are to heart-on-their-sleeve declarations of young would-be lovers peppered in between plot vomit.
It's not all cut-and-dry, of course, and we do get a few moments of needless objectification without ever addressing it. The body Ido makes for Alita initially was meant for his adolescent daughter; when Alita "upgrades," her figure is much more grown-up, and people mention it. Yes, it's just as awkward as you think it would be. But there's never any engagement with cyberpunk staples like a synthetic life form wanting to know what love is. What's it like to be the Platonic ideal of a physical specimen programmed to kill while possessing the soul of an innocent? It's all right there, easily addressed in some way, but left by the wayside in favor of more exposition and threats.
There's certainly fun to be had with Alita: Battle Angel, though. While I personally wasn't a fan of the script the action is satisfying if that's what you're after. Rodriguez proves he's still a near-unmatched visual storyteller, a talent we'd almost forgotten he had after his years of passion projects on the cheap. Any sort of script doctoring to make the characters feel like they mattered would have gone a very long way.
3 out of 5
Images: 20th Century Fox