Alita: Battle Angel
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis
Based on the manga, Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro
Starring Rose Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly and more
Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
You don’t have to look any further than Netflix to know that live-action manga and anime adaptations have had a rough go of it so far. But with the success of so many varying comic book and superhero properties, one has to wonder... what’s actually holding them back?
James Cameron seems to think that technology was the only thing keeping him from adapting Gunnm, Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga created in 1990. But I’m inclined to disagree. While Alita: Battle Angel is a stunning technological achievement, seamlessly blending performance captured CGI with real actors and placing them in a believable computer-generated setting, it forgets that it should have a more compelling story to tell than the same superhero formula that we’ve all memorized over the last decade at least.
Alita: Battle Angel is a story about an amnesiac female cyborg trying to remember her past and find her place in a strange new world. But when her new family is threatened, she finds that she does remember aa legendary ancient martial art called Panzer Kunst and this sets her on a crash course with an unknown enemy. Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis’ script is fairly faithful to the original manga but the scope of the world makes Alita feel like a cipher in her own story.
That’s where this adaptation fails. In the manga, Alita is a focus. She does more on her own and we learn about the world through her interactions with it. In the film, we know more about the world before Alita does,making her discovery feel anticlimactic and doing less to endear her to us as an audience. Plus Cameron and Kalogridis’ script doesn’t strike a balance in her reactions to certain things. She gets really excited about chocolate and falls for Hugo, a random boy that she’s just met, but she doesn’t question that she suddenly knows martials arts. It makes the film feel really uneven; like certain elements are meant to undermine her.
And with a story about cyborgs, the theme that I always come back to bodily autonomy. Alita is constantly denied her humanity and her own agency by just about every other character in the film. That’s to be expected from the villains but Christoph Waltz’s Doctor Ido and Keean Johnson’s Hugo are similar in that they grab her arms without asking or telling her to do things. Ido refuses her request to be put in an upgraded body, infantilizing her by keeping her in a body that he made for her young daughter. If this is a story about a young woman discovering who she is and what her place in the world is, then for at least the first half of the film, all she’s learning is that she is meant to be held back and put upon.
In the back half of the film, she does buck some of that behavior from the other characters but even when she’s in full kick-ass cyborg mode, the script still forces her to make personal sacrifices or put herself on the line. I know that’s the “mark of a hero.” But the film doesn’t really give us a reason for it that’s not essentially just “the power of love” so it feels somewhat unearned. Alita is all of the male characters fantasy in some way. She’s Hugo’s girlfriend, Ido’s daughter, and Nova’s prize. But what’s her fantasy? The script doesn’t really care.
And it’s a shame that the story is so shallow and rote because we do get some good performances here. Mahershala Ali has proven time and time again that he can do a ton with just about any role and he’s surprisingly menacing here. Christoph Waltz’ Ido has a very similar energy to his counterpart in the manga and that’s appreciated. All of the cyborg goons and bounty hunters have a lot of life to them and some fun designs. Even Rose Salazar’s performance really comes through the CGI and distractingly-gigantic eyes.
It’s also a little surprising that this wasn’t held off for a summer release, though I suppose with the glut of Marvel movies on the horizon, there might be more money to be made in February. Robert Rodriguez is a stylish director with some cache to his name even if his best works are probably behind him and this is an effective action-adventure movie that definitely features more than a few wow moments. The fact that so much of what was animated was captured in real life first really lends a sense of realism to the way that characters move and how fight scenes play out. I do think that Rodriguez and his cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2) do struggle with portraying the cyberpunk dystopia of Iron City as something unique and not just a pastiche of Blade Runner and Ready Player One’s Stacks. But overall, this is a pretty competently made film with more than a few standout visuals.
But the film is so caught up in its visuals and whether or not the team behind it can pull off the technical marvels that it is flat out inconsiderate of what actually happens on screen. Outside of Ali and Salazar, very few people of color get any lines of dialogue and none get any that are of any significance. Alita and Connolly’s Chiren are essentially the film’s only two female characters besides a black nurse who is on screen quite a bit but rarely speaks and various cyborg women who are more fodder for fight scenes than anything else. The one time that Alita and Chiren do speak to each other it’s about Hugo so they can’t even step over the low bar that is the Bechdel test. That feels a bit counter to the film’s purported themes.
The mark of a good adaptation is not just wholesale taking something from the page to the screen. It’s understanding the time that the original was made and finding ways to update the story without losing what makes it unique. Cameron and Kalogridis try to condense four volumes of manga into a two-hour film (while mixing in some elements from the two OVAs) and it’s just not enough. Despite pushing the envelope with moviemaking technology, Alita: Battle Angel is nothing more than the Cliff’s Notes of a much deeper story.