Live-action adaptations of anime and manga haven’t had the best of luck in Hollywood, at least if we’re looking at big theatrical attempts like Ghost in the Shell or Dragon Ball Evolution. And initial glimpses and teasers of Alita: Battle Angel, with the central character’s oversized eyes, seemed like a strange style choice that hinted Hollywood’s losing streak might continue.
Co-writer/producer James Cameron read and fell hard for Yukito Kishiro‘s manga Gunnm 20 years ago, and has been determined to bring it to the big screen ever since. And thanks to Cameron’s extensive experience in visual spectacle-based Blockbusters, combined with Peter Jackson’s visual effects company Weta Digital, and director Robert Rodriguez’s ability to craft fully immersive worlds with a sense of awe, Alita: Battle Angel shatters Hollywood’s bad luck streak.
Set in the 26th century, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the disembodied living core of a cybernetic teen girl in the dumping grounds of an upper-class floating city. Using the artificial body he once built for his now deceased daughter, he revives the cyborg, who he dubs Alita. Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no memory of who she once was, but her internal parts indicate her to be one very powerful weapon from the past. Alita: Battle Angel is Alita’s thrilling journey of self-discovery, love, and purpose in a sprawling new world.
From a pure entertainment perspective, Alita: Battle Angel is a stunning showcase of visual storytelling.
Rodriguez has crafted a soaring marvel that sucks you into Alita’s world as it zips through so many captivating set pieces. The fun but deadly sport Motorball, multiple battle sequences with vicious cyborg foes, and above all the richly rendered city where all of the action takes place. It’s so thoroughly crafted that there’s an insane amount of detail on screen at every level, from minute city background detail to Alita’s storyline at the forefront. The visual aspect alone conveys an uncanny level of world-building at play.
That feeling of awe and wonder is further propelled by a set of fantastic performances that grounds the fantastical with real emotion. Salazar is phenomenal as Alita. She imbues her large-eyed, not quite human character with such warmth, curiosity, and humanity that it’s easy to follow her no matter where her story goes and how weird it gets – and it does run quite the gamut. Waltz also brings warmth and morality to a less than moral world with his protective father figure Ido, and Jennifer Connelly is icy intelligence as the calculating Dr. Chiren, who desires nothing more than to return to the utopic floating city in the sky. Ed Skrein is clearly having a ball as the lethal but pretty-faced cyborg bounty hunter Zapan, and Mahershala Ali also enjoys some scene-chewing as the villainous Vector. There’s no shortage of smaller roles and cameos by some of Rodriguez’s regular roster of favorite actors, either.
For all that Alita: Battle Angel gets right, it’s marred a bit by a weaker script.
Cameron isn’t the strongest of writers, and it really shows in the dialogue. Poor Ali is forced to utter some really goofy lines, and there are questionable lines that would’ve been better off having been cut altogether – like when Alita gets upgraded to a better cyborg body, which also makes her look more feminine, Ido comments on her new womanly figure. It’s awkward. The romance subplot between Alita and Keean Johnson’s Hugo is the weakest aspect of the film, though. Against Salazar’s breathtaking performance, Johnson feels flat. That Hugo and Alita’s budding love feels contrived simply for emotional stakes doesn’t help. The writing also means that for all of the fun we have barreling through action set pieces, it can feel like too much is being crammed into the story.
Regardless, Alita: Battle Angel has enough fun, gore, and dizzying action sequences to make it an adventure worth experiencing on the big screen.
Rodriguez was the perfect director for handling such a unique story; his unique taste and rebellious attitude that gave us films like Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn were a major asset here. The talented cast bolsters that in spades. It may not have the thematic depth of the manga, but for a great time at the movies, who really cares?