First, the basics. Alita: Battle Angel is a new film directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Spy Kids 3D), produced by James Cameron (Aliens, Titanic, Avatar) and based on the anime based on the manga by Yukito Kishiro. The film stars Rosa Salazar as Alita and features performances by Oscar winners Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, and Jennifer Connelly.
As for the source material, Alita: Battle Angel is based on a manga titled Battle Angel Alita in English, and in Japan known simply as Gunnm (literally “gun dream”). Admittedly, I have never read any of the manga or seen any of the anime adapted from it. Apparently, James Cameron has, since he’s been trying for around two decades to get this movie made. And though Robert Rodriguez directs, I see nothing here indicative of the director’s signature.
I did some light research, trying to spoil as little as possible but not walk in completely cold. I was mostly successful (except for accidentally learning the fate of a fairly central character only to shrug it off as “they aren’t gonna go there on the first movie,” then to discover they do, and to ultimately feel that long time fans of the series will probably consider it to be a pretty watered-down version of the seemingly important event). With that out of the way, let’s get to what’s on the screen.
In the distant future of 2563, many years after “the Fall,” some sort of great conflict that may or may not have included aliens with suped-up battle cyborgs, Earth is in bad shape. The surface dwellers are poor, disenfranchised and doomed to an existence of struggle in what is known as the “scrapyard.” Hovering high above this gorgeous hellscape is an Elysium-like city in the sky. We never get much of glimpse into life up there, but I think we know the story well enough to assume it’s a lot better than what passes for existence for the unlucky inhabitants of Earth.
From the start there’s a real identity to this world, clearly crafted with care and an eye for detail. And it doesn’t take long for the film to start throwing characters at us, starting with Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido, who immediately discovers the discarded body of our titular heroine. Unfolding before us along with what this film considers a narrative, is more detail about the world our characters inhabit.
To view the film on its surface, this is a beautifully crafted world of top notch CGI filled to the brim with dark themes and horrifying implications about the state of reality, and yet already we’ve arrived at my main criticism: the world is vastly more interesting than the story being told. As is the problem with many adaptations, Alita: Battle Angel has an expanded history of it’s own world to draw from. World building in a cyperpunk inspired dystopian sci-fi future is likely the heaviest lifting one must do when putting together a movie like this, and that work has already been done.
On the bright side, the filmmaker’s have a clear admiration for the source material when it came to constructing this dark look at the future of humanity. However, there is so much crammed into this movie’s two hour runtime-credits included-that no event carries any particular weight, and no motivations have time to develop to convincingly drive the characters to action. The story is first propelled by the child-like Alita’s curiosity of everything, being that everything is new to her. She quickly meets the movie’s hapless male love interest, Hugo, who also happens to give the weakest performance.
Often with these types of stories, I try to look past this type of character trope, as is the case with something like The Fifth Element. The only reason I found it difficult here, was that in the course of researching what the hell Alita is, it seemed pretty important that the character was created to turn these types of tropes on their heads. Alita takes the “born sexy yesterday” male fantasy and subverts it, showing the grim reality of what it would really mean to love something more than human. On a narrative level, this feels like a story retold by people who love the source material, but don’t “get” the source material.
From what I can tell, fans of the manga will likely enjoy this over the top retelling of the first four books (too many, if you ask me), but I’m not sure general audiences have much stake apart from the fantastic visuals. Surprisingly, I think families will enjoy the story and the Alita character, as it holds strong in PG-13 territory despite the hard R potential of the world. Another one of my problems with this: it should have been a series with a TV-MA rating. There’s enough substance in the subtle details of this film to fill out several seasons of intriguing television.
All that said, the reasons this route was not taken are clear. Cameron likely wanted to, as a producer this time, continue to push the limits of visual effects. This is rather expensive, with the film estimated to have cost around $200 million, the type of budget reserved for movies that have Marvel or Star Wars attached to them, not relatively unknown-in-the-states’ manga properties. For a movie this expensive, with no discernible built in audience, the most practical way to achieve this is to trim the runtime (I wouldn’t be surprised if a cut closer to three hours exists somewhere), and tone it down to avoid the dreaded R rating. That equals a larger potential audience and more screenings per day per theater.
Easily the most bizarre choice the filmmakers made here was to simultaneously stuff so much into this one entry, while also ultimately leaving the larger story unfulfilled in service to a hopeful sequel. In fact, there are two immersion breaking cameos in this-one towards the front and one at the very end-that seem only to inform you of the movie you could be watching in two or three years. Am I the only one sick of this? That’s ridiculous. I know I’m not.
In summation, it’s a fun dumb summer flick inexplicably released in February. The story moves so fast and glosses over so many potentially big and dramatic elements, it can’t help but feel like it’s too dumb to dig into of them. The effects however give the Avengers some competition, and barring one largely uninspired Rollerball knockoff, the action is wildly entertaining. If you need something to hold you over until Captain Marvel drops next month, this’ll do the trick, but don’t expect anything particularly deep.