Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Alita: Battle Angel
The Great War left the Earth – and humanity – in a giant postapocalyptic mess, and in the year 2563, the bedraggled scraps of the human race live in a giant metaphor for class struggle. Above, the elites live in the last of the great floating metropolises, Zalem. Below, you'll find the rest of us, scraping out a violent existence in the rusting Darwinian hellscape known as Iron City, where cyborg criminals and the warriors who hunt their bounties fight for dominance and dream of one day ascending to Zalem, all under the watchful eye of The Factory.
One evening during magic hour, the kind-hearted scientist and freelance cybernetics surgeon Dr. Ido fishes the torso of a wildly advanced robot girl with a human brain out of the trash and screws her head on to a prosthetic cyber-body meant for his long-dead daughter, Alita, which of course becomes her name too. Alita's got a touch of the amnesia and can't really remember who she is until she discovers Ido moonlighting as a “Hunter-Warrior”, someone who reaps the Factory bounty from a laundry list of murderers and scumbags skulking around Iron City.
Ido's encounter with three murderous cyborgs in a dark alleyway goes sour, and Alita saves his hide by unexpectedly busting out some long-forgotten Martian Arts techniques. She beats the living snot out of them, murdering two and leaving the hulking Grewiskha alive, who just so happens to be the #1 stooge of Vector, the powerful and mysterious Motorball magnate trying to hold Iron City in the palm of his hand. Now he wants Alita's head on a plate.
It's been a long, long, long and rocky road to release for Alita: Battle Angel. First announced in 2003 by a post-Titanic, pre-Avatar James Cameron who'd spent his Oscar afterglow making nerdy documentaries about his fleet of submersibles, Cameron showed great enthusiasm for the original material but never really committed to production, instead getting distracted by Avatar – and then Avatar 2, 3, 4 and 5. Sometime in the middle of this decade, Cameron realized the clock was ticking on this one but still clearly wanted to make it, so he drafted Desperado and Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez to helm the movie for him and finally get the damn thing into theaters after 16 years of sitting on the adaptation rights. We've been waiting nearly two decades for this long-gestating vaporware to finally materialize, after a whole bunch of crappy live-action anime adaptations made most fans want to write the concept off forever – so what did Cameron and Rodriguez manage to put together?
Turns out they made a stunning, brutal, wildly entertaining, and surprisingly faithful glossy $200 million-dollar adaptation of Battle Angel, just like Cameron promised. They made a theatrical spectacle that feels totally unique and fresh, even though it's based on a manga that's nearly 30 years old and has influenced countless productions since. They made easily the best live-action adaptation of an anime or manga to date. Sure, this is a very low bar to clear, but they vaulted over it and then smashed it to pieces with a rocket hammer.
Alita: Battle Angel is first and foremost a broadly accessible and yet remarkably reverent adaptation of Kishiro's original manga – some of the story beats have been remixed, some names have been changed, and they found a way to work Motorball in early, but this is the story, with most of Kishiro's visceral excess (and emotional distance) still present. There's palpable respect for the source material in this movie – not only are the plot, the characters, and their motivations left largely intact, Cameron and Rodriguez constantly recreate those moments from the manga and the OVA that everyone remembers for their almost lyrical brutality. (“I'll tear your limbs off one by one and fashion you into a screaming pendant” is in there – right after Alita smears dog's blood on her cheeks like war paint!) It's a thrill to watch, but it's also clear that the movie is pretty overstuffed – they're cramming a ton of story into these two hours, and midway through the second act, the film definitely starts to sag under the weight of all those numerous plot threads. There are moments of confusion, some narrative speed-bumps, and a handful of too-convenient character turns, but thankfully the dynamite third act does a remarkable job connecting everything that needs to be connected. Even if you've never read the manga or seen the 1993 anime, you'll be able to string all these crazy plot elements together in the end. The movie operates simultaneously as a love letter to Kishiro's comics, instantly recognizable to fans of his work, and also as hard-edged blockbuster entertainment for genre fans of all stripes.
There are still some issues when it comes to execution. Both Kishiro and Cameron have a strong tendency to eschew emotional complexity and intimacy, and as a result, Alita: Battle Angel lacks it almost entirely. Alita is kind of a threadbare cipher in both versions – she wakes up as a human brain in a cybernetic warrior's body, but can't remember who she is until she gets the chance to stomp some ass, and then realizes “Oh right, I'm an unstoppable murder machine! Let's decapitate some bad guys!” That's pretty much it. It's great (and exciting!) but that's pretty much it. She develops a paternal relationship with Ido (probably the strongest emotional material in the film, which ain't saying much), and the filmmakers cranked up Alita's romance with ethically-compromised street urchin Hugo (formerly Yugo) in an attempt to imbue the whole thing with feelings beyond a righteous thirst for blood and metal, but it doesn't really connect.
There are a few factors in conflict here – for one, this is snappy, fast-paced, high-concept action spectacle with a zillion plot threads, and even seasoned craftsmen like Cameron and Rodriguez have a hard time trying to cram emotional intimacy in the tiny spaces between all the spine-shredding robot disembowelment and cyberpunk worldbuilding. Second, the supporting cast performances are not very strong overall – Rosa Salazar absolutely kills it as Alita, and Christoph Waltz imbues Dyson Ido with genuinely kind paternal warmth, but the generic Disney Channel-looking guy they cast as Hugo seems like a transplant from a less interesting movie, and he can't sell the overwritten YA romance very well. All the film's crazy plot threads lean on a lot of totally absurd dialogue that even manages to trip up the incredible Mahershala Ali and the beloved Jennifer Connelly, resulting in performances that sometimes fail to sell the material. I don't really blame the actors – this is a tough script, with lines occasionally lifted straight from the comics. It's a little more suited to over-the-top late-90s voice acting than the kind of careful performance you usually get from someone like Ali. Thankfully, the experience is unrelenting excess built on a sturdy narrative structure, telling a story that moves so fast that it's basically daring you to keep up with it – so the relatively weak performances barely make a dent in its neon-bathed appeal.
The biggest potential issue – one that triggered a nearly year-long delay while the team figured it out – was the visual execution of Alita herself. The first trailers showcased a CG stab at making anime “real” – a photo-realistic Alita with enormous saucer eyes and a tiny little mouth, and boy did that put people off. Six months of tweaking later, they came up with what seemed like a reasonable compromise – she's still got big eyes, but they're not comically large, and she's very carefully animated. Though Alita never quite left the uncanny valley for me during the film's entire runtime, she's supposed to look otherworldly, unlike any of the humans or cyborgs around her. Thanks to absolutely ace visual compositing – Alita looks and moves like an organic part of the world around her and interacts flawlessly with the rest of the cast – it congeals into an obvious aesthetic choice rather than a compromise or something they couldn't quite get right. Alita is supposed to look that way, and the incredible level of visual effects polish on display (this movie looks significantly better than your average Marvel flick) weave her into her surroundings flawlessly. Nothing ever looks cheap, nothing ever looks green-screened, and the endless (and endlessly thrilling) fight scenes - from Alita's breathtaking encounter with Grewishka in the Iron City underworld to the hilariously intense Motorball sequences - are beautifully choreographed, shot and edited for maximum impact and maximum comprehension. Cameron has never slouched when it comes to aesthetic, and even though this is technically a Robert Rodriguez film, the Jim Cameron Polish is ever-present. There are images from this film that I'll never get out of my head.
Ultimately what makes Alita: Battle Angel so special – and a little mindblowing – is that it exists at all. We live in the era of Disney Pixar Marvel Lucasfilm and a bunch of other studios chasing Disney Pixar Marvel Lucasfilm-style dominating success, like a factory for giant-sized, focus-tested, family-friendly genre entertainment that often feels like eating the same bowl of nonthreatening sugary cereal again and again. I love a lot of those films, but seeing Alita: Battle Angel so confidently smeared all over the biggest and most expensive canvas in the world – this weird-ass, unrepentantly strange and violent cyberpunk story dripping with the edgy adolescent blood and grit of the '90s – it felt fresh. I've known this story, these characters, all of which it recreates faithfully, for nearly 25 years, but this movie felt totally unique, somehow like nothing I've ever seen before. In an age where mass-market entertainment can often feel like it's all the same Content™, an insanely confident, ambitious, intense, and proudly weird movie like Alita: Battle Angel is something to be treasured and cherished.
I can't wait to see it again.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ A thrilling, polished, beautifully weird and strikingly faithful adaptation of Battle Angel Alita
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