Just like the long rumoured live-action versions of Evangelion and Robotech/Macross, for years James Cameron’s Battle Angel Alita only existed as hopeful fan discussions around what the director of Terminator, Aliens and Avatar could achieve when he turned his artistic talents to an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga classic.
Since Cameron has apparently decided to spend the rest of his life making Avatar sequels, he has passed the directorial reigns to Robert Rodriguez, remaining on as producer on what might be one of the most faithful manga adaptations by Hollywood. And even that still manages to fall short of greatness.
The overall plot of Alita: Battle Angel (apparently Cameron like his films to start with an “A” or a “T”) is cobbled together from parts of the manga that ran from 1990 to 1995 as well some elements that only appeared in the 2 episode OVA from 1993. 300 years after an apocalyptic war known as The Fall, the residents of Iron City scavenge to make a living off the technological scrap cast off by the last floating city Zalem.
While searching for cybernetic spare parts for his clinic Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the cybernetic head of a girl with a living human brain inside and brings her back to life. Fitting her out with a new cybernetic body, he names her Alita after she reveals she can remember nothing of her past.
While Ido tries to shield her from the harsh realities of the world outside, Alita is determined to learn everything she can about the new world she finds herself in. This includes the handsome young man Hugo, the mysterious activities that take Ido to the streets each night and the realm of the “Hunter-Warriors” who police the mean streets of Iron City.
For Your Eyes Only
Before discussing the rest of the film we have to address the elephant in the room; the overly large anime eyes that the filmmakers decide to give Alita. While I got used to them after a short while and the effect is achieved well enough that it never detracts from the “look” of the character, it doesn’t really seem to serve any purpose other than to infantilize the amnesiac Alita and set her apart from everyone around her. It’s an odd design choice in a movie where almost all of the rest of the cyborgs have gone to great lengths to keep their original human faces as unchanged as possible.
The onscreen realisation of those cyborgs, as well as the world around them, is never less than impressive. Jackie Earle Haley is almost unrecognisable as the hulking henchman Grewishka who captures the spirit, if not the exact look of the character from the previous versions: a terrifying contraption of metal and blades.
The rest of the world around Alita has also been beautifully crafted, with the filmmakers taking the care to perfectly replicate individual panels from the books as well as sequences from the animation. All three open strikingly with almost identical shots of Dr. Ido pulling an eye from a cyborg’s skull in the scrap heaps of iron city. Many of the action scenes also take the time to fit in iconic moments from the manga, like a battle damaged Alita balancing perfectly on one hand during a fight.
The implementation of 3D is also to be applauded, as despite many dark scenes throughout, the film never suffers the dimming effect that so badly affected 3D versions of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the last film I saw in 3D. The picture is never less than crisp, and the action never less than clear.
All Surface, No Feeling
As impressive as the film looks, however, its plot and characters aren’t quite so successful.
Screenwriters Cameron, Rodriguez, & Laeta Kalogridis have taken the story of the first 2 volumes of the manga, introducing the world and Alita’s relationships with Ido and Hugo, and blended them with the elements from the third and fourth volumes, primarily the vicious cyborg sport of Motorball. A combination of roller derby and murder with various enhanced cyborgs tearing each other apart while chasing a ball around a race circuit, the onscreen realisation of Motorball was obviously a draw for Cameron/Rodriguez. However, in the original Alita only takes up Motorball due to some tragic events at the end of volume two, events which now take place in parallel. This has the unintended side effect of giving Alita, both the character and the movie, constantly shifting motivations which make her a slightly less than engaging heroine.
Is she focused on chasing her lost memories, taking up Motorball to earn credits, proving herself as a member of the hunter-warrior guild, or trying to end injustice in Iron City? She does all of these throughout the movie but the constant shifting ends up making her feel weak.
This isn’t helped by the unconvincing love story with the selfish Hugo. Jack and Rose these two ain’t.
Cameron has stated that in making the film he that he wanted to “make something that would give her (his daughter) a sense of confidence and empowerment that she could invest in“, but Alita doesn’t really display those attributes as well as Ripley or Sarah Connor. She feels adrift, constantly caught up in the motivations of those around her.
While the film can seem surprisingly gruesome for its P13 age rating, it’s only cyborg chassis being chopped up and blue fluid leaking from bodies instead of blood. The brightness of the world that works so well in 3D also works against the darkness required in the narrative. Iron City doesn’t appear to be that bad of a place to live. More like a dusty Wakanda than a cesspit that people would be willing to do anything to escape from, with the vision of Zalem taunting them from above.
None of this detracts from the performances, although it’s difficult if not impossible to separate Rosa Salazar’s performance from those CGI eyes and her replacement cyborg body. It’s almost impossible to see where the actress ends and Alita begins, which is a remarkable technical feat in itself. Mahershala Ali manages to nail the look and character of Vector almost perfectly while simultaneously providing the best audition tape for a Blade reboot (or a Wesley Snipes biopic). It’s also great to see genre stalwart Jeff Fahey in a small but crucial role.
Most of the sins of the movie could be overlooked if not for the one it commits right before you leave the cinema, that of the sequel-baiting call to action. After a time jump that would seem ripe for material for future sequels the film ends with Alita, now the Battle Angel, calling out the mysterious villain behind most of the machinations of the plot. It’s probably intended to mirror Neo’s threat from the end of the first Matrix but falls far short of the mark and ends up feeling hugely unsatisfying, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
Visually Alita: Battle Angel manages to capture the look of its source material almost perfectly and avoids the kind of missteps made by the live action Ghost In The Shell adaptation with Scarlett Johansson. However, in assembling its cybernetic Frankenstein’s monster, it has lost some of the appeal of the original source material.
At the very least, it’s worth watching for the spectacle and action, if not the characters.
Final Rating: 70/100