Alita: Battle Angel is a fascinating beast to dissect, especially concerning its production hell history. The manga that the film was based on was introduced to James Cameron by Guillermo Del Toro in 2000. Cameron became enamored with it and tried to get the motor running on adapting it into a movie. But thanks to Avatar, its apparent sequels and multiple other factors, Alita: Battle Angel was in production hell for a long time until it finally got started in 2016 with Robert Rodriquez attached to direct. Once Cameron got the ball rolling, it was originally scheduled for a date in 2018, but then it was pushed to 2019 due to budgetary reasons. Think about that for a second. James Cameron has been adamantly working on this movie for the amount of time it takes for a newborn baby to grow into a legal adult. You don’t sit on anything that long unless you think it’s worth it. Over the years, I had often heard whispers in the wind about this legendary movie that was constantly put on hold, so seeing this movie in theaters was a slightly surreal experience. Was the 19 year long wait worth it? Yes, I think so.
Based on the manga Gunnm created by Yukito Kishiro, Alita: Battle Angel takes place on a post apocalyptic Earth three or four centuries after a war known as “The Fall.” The world is ravaged, but two cities still exist: Iron City, a city on the ground that’s occupied by humans, cyborgs, bounty hunters. And then there’s Zalem, an enigmatic city in the sky where the wealthy thrive and prosper. While scouring the Iron City scrapyards, scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the deactivated torso of a female cyborg with a miraculously undamaged brain. The cyborg suffers from amnesia, so along with a new body, Ido grants her a name: Alita (Rosa Salazar). It is clear that Alita is no ordinary cyborg, due to the fact that she inexplicably knows a cyborg martial art that was thought to be extinct, and has a subconscious warriors instinct behind her regularly sweet and curious demeanor. As Alita tries to familiarize herself with her present life, her complex past is slowly revealed, along with old and new enemies from both Iron City and Zalem.
Robert Rodriquez outdoes himself on the action in this movie. With a mixture of motion capture, CGI and some actual physical action from some of the actors, no action set piece or character ever looks unappealing to witness. Even though I am aware on some occasions that what I’m watching is the work of a computer, I’m sometimes caught off guard by how good the movie looks. I wasn’t aware that Alita’s casual clothes were computer generated until after I watched the film, for example. It’s not just the action, but the setting itself is a visually stunning creation that is brought to life through both CGI and even some smaller but well constructed physical sets. It’s a beautiful but dangerous setting where the definition of humanity and its relationship with technology has blurred. It’s unsafe to go out at night lest you be torn apart and sold on the black market and the cost of a decent life is blood, oil and your soul.
The action has the grace and brutality of a ballerina with a rocket launcher. It’s a paradoxical pairing of tones, but it works. When people get punched or torn apart, it looks and sounds like it hurts REALLY bad. The only reason this movie gets away with having a PG-13 rating is because everyone in the movie either bleeds blue or black as opposed to red. The sicko in me kind of wishes they went all out and made it an R rating, but the over the top violence is still very well executed and what I’m given is, thankfully, enough to sate my dark desires. I always look forward to the next action scene, especially ones that concern Rosa Salazar’s Alita, who offers a lot to the role, both physically and emotionally. She’s lithe and dexterous, but she hits like a cement truck if you make her angry. If you play to her good side though, she’s a likable and adorable sweetheart. She’s like a mixture of Leeloo from The Fifth Element and Bruce Lee. If Bruce Lee was a cyborg. She also stands out with her design, which is obviously anime inspired. With her tiny yet muscular body, slightly overlarge head, small mouth and giant anime eyes, the film clearly wears its anime roots on its sleeve. Not just in Alita’s design, but in its various character and setting designs and aforementioned fight scenes. There have been plenty of American films inspired by various anime titles, like the abysmal Dragon Ball: Evolution or the bland Netflix movie Death Note, but never before have I seen an anime inspired film like Alita: Battle Angel be unashamed of its Japanese roots. It is unapologetically anime, and it’s refreshing to see a movie like that, despite some hang ups I have with it that I’ll get to later.
Alita: Battle Angel incorporates a lot of fun sci-fi influences that it pulls from outside of the manga. You have the creative gadgetry and similar main character from The Fifth Element, the social commentary on the separation of class borrowed from Metropolis, the bleak and shabby city run by shadowy corporations reminiscent of Blade Runner and the concept of Motorball, a parodical fusion of sport and a gladiatorial arena that calls back to the film Rollerball. There are even some robots in the movie that look suspiciously like the ED-209 from Robocop. The film borrows a lot of concepts from various sci-fi titles, but it does manage to use these concepts in an interesting and original way so that it doesn’t feel stale.
The overabundance of ideas is both a good and a bad thing, however. The movie has one major problem, and it involves its story and pacing. From what I understand, the story that the film covers is based on the first 12 chapters or so of the original manga. Those chapters set up its world, characters and concepts at around 400 pages over the course of a year or so. This movie tries to do all of that in 2 hours, with mixed results. It stops the flow of the story on multiple occasions in order to explain to Alita, and by extension the audience, a person, place or thing that we may or may not need explained to us. It oftentimes becomes information overload. I can understand why James Cameron was so eager to adapt this story; it has some beautiful imagery, likable characters and some fascinating concepts that it plays with. But the problem with adapting that property is that attempting to sum up these concepts in a much shorter time frame is a very difficult task. It’s not impossible, but it’s a task that Alita: Battle Angel clearly doesn’t excel. The dialogue can also be a tad awkward. Remember how I said that the movie was unapologetically anime? This is another factor that is both a positive and negative. There are some melodramatic or weird lines in this movie that would sound more natural if you were reading it in a manga, or reading subtitles on a screen. It’s the difficulties of adapting a manga, I suppose. Despite some narrative and pacing problems, Alita: Battle Angel is a fun, cerebral, and unique experience. But as much as I, the filmmakers and fans would like to see a sequel, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t see general audiences, especially ones who aren’t familiar with manga or anime, to have a lot of interest in a movie like this. They’ll probably be put off by the unfamiliar anime aesthetic, which I think is an unfair judgement. I’m hoping that word of mouth gets the attention this movie deserves, but it probably won’t get any bigger than a cult status, unfortunately. Still, it’s great to finally see a good American made anime adaptation that’s been able to nestle itself into the modern American social consciousness like this. It’s especially great to see it done for a property like Alita: Battle Angel, which doesn’t have much in terms of adaptions or interpretations. There’s the original manga, an hour long anime made in the 90’s, and that’s it. I’m happy that this story has been given another interpretation for people to absorb and become familiar with, because Alita: Battle Angel is a flawed but unique story that deserves more exposure.