Alita: Battle Angel is Manga to Film Done Right

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For decades, James Cameron, who was once a wunderkid of Hollywood with successes such as Terminator 2, Aliens, and Titanic, had been sitting on the rights to a manga and anime called Battle Angel Alita. And it seemed like it would never be made. Well it has been a long road but it has finally arrived to us with Robert Rodriguez directing.

The source material is a manga series by Yukita Kishiro that began in 1990. And even though the original run called Battle Angel Alita runs 9 volumes (a manga volume will comprises of several chapters with a page count of about 200 pages per volume), the sequel series runs an additional 18 volumes (15 of which have been collected into 3 in 1 omnibuses). Mars Chronicle is a series currently running. Suffice it to say it is a long running series.

A short anime adaptation was made in 1993 which covered major events of the first 2 volumes. It was through the anime that Guillermo del Toro introduced James Cameron to a video of the anime and it prompted him to read the manga. The rest of the story is a couple of decades of development and when Avatar and development of its multiple sequels got in his way, Cameron eventually asked friend Robert Rodriguez to take over directing duties.

Now, live-action anime and manga adaptations in the west has not had a good track record. The failed Dragonball movie comes to mind and most recently the uninspired Ghost in the Shell movie barely covered production costs (whitewashing was the least of its issues). Speed Racer, though unabashedly embracing its anime roots was a box office failure. Netflix’s own adaptation of Death Note was met with critical and fan disdain.

Japan is not immune to doing bad anime adaptations. Attack on Titan and Full Metal Alchemist were both projects that failed to impress.

So after 20 years of development limbo and following in the footsteps of other US manga to live-action failures, does Alita: Battle Angel succeed?  As far as box office, time will tell as it’s nearly $175 million budget shows and marketing campaign can’t be cheap either. As a movie, though, it is a glorious and exciting film filled with action and eye-popping special effects not just in the action sequences but in the simple creation of the main character of Alita herself. Weta Digital, the company made famous by their work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings goes above and beyond in the creation of Alita.

This would not have been possible to believe without the break-out performance by Rosa Salazar in a role that is guaranteed to make her star. Across the spectrum, she is being praised for her work, and rightly so.

As Alita: Battle Angel begins, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is wandering through a scrapyard beneath the floating city of Zalem, combing for spare parts. There he finds a humanoid head and upper torso. Though it is a cyborg construct, he finds that the human brain is still alive. Taking it back to his clinic where he is a local doctor who helps repair many of the cybernetic prosthetics of the citizens of Iron City, he attaches her head to a cybernetic body that he intended to make for his dead daughter.

She awakes with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Dyson names her Alita after daughter. So it is obvious right away that he become her father figure. It is also one of the most drastic departures from the manga.

As far as science-fiction action movies, this movie is pretty dense on plot. And depending on other critics, either it’s too much story, or too little story. So what do we know? Along with discovering who she is and her place in the world she has awakened in, she realizes that she has an instinctual attraction to conflict and that she is trained in a deadly form of combat that has not been used in 300 years.

One night, she discovers that Dr. Ido has been spending his nights as a hunter warrior, a bounty hunter who uses the money earned to help pay the bills for his clinic. Unfortunately he gets in over his head when he is outnumbered. Fortunately Alita’s curiosity led her to follow him in that night. So instead of running like he tells her to do, she manages to take out two of the bounties and wound a third who barely gets away.

Because this seems to trigger bits of memory she wants to join the ranks of the hunter warriors too. Of course Ido is dead set against this saying how dangerous it is. Seriously, this is right after she kung fu’ed to death a couple of psychopathic cyborgs and saved Ido’s life.

There is a romance subplot, the weakest element, not because it exists, but in the way it is executed. Hugo is a young man working odd jobs for Vector (Mareshala Ali), a bit of a kingpin in Iron City. He runs the motorball arena, which is reminiscent of Rollerball but even more violent. Hugo believes that if he saves up enough money from doing work for Vector that he can earn his way to Zalem. Yeah, that’s not going to end well,  especially when Ido says if you are born on the surface you stay on the surface.

Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, a character not based on the manga but on the anime. The script, by James Cameron and others, makes her the estranged wife of Dr. Ido as well. Her character, as well as Ido were born on Zalem but were sent down because of their daughter’s physical disabilities. Her story contrasts with Ido in that she wants to get back to the floating city and works with Vector in the hopes of someday getting back.

Throughout though is the manipulative hand of Nova, a mysterious puppet-master looking down from Zalem who recognizes that Alita is a danger to the order of things and in true villain fashion keeps sending minions after her that fail.Ultimately it is a way to go from one action scene to the next.

These action scenes are without a doubt visually exciting to watch. Weta Digital outdid themselves in the execution of not only the fighting scenes but in the Motorball sequences. In between the action is the incredibly realized Iron City that is densely populated and has a lived in and worn look of a city that is still recovering from the aftereffects of a war that occurred 300 years ago. The manga itself can get gory and I think the only reason that the film adaptation did not get an R rating is because many of the bodies being ripped or heads being decapitated are machine bodies.

Robert Rodriguez seems to juggle everything well and bring a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi action film that fires on most cylinders. Despite how crowded the story is, and  even though the movie is self-contained, there is still an opening for a sequel. The end result is a movie that literally delivers on the strong kick-ass female led movie. It is also one of the few films in recent years to really take advantage of 3D and makes me wish I had a 3D television to watch this when it gets a home release.

I must say I originally had my doubts about yet another attempt at a western adaptation of a manga or anime. But Alita: Battle Angel won me over and shows that it is possible to do it when you have filmmakers that not only have a love of the subject but respect the source material as well. Highly Recommended

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