Near the end of Alita: Battle Angel, the title character’s boyfriend utters an emotional thank you to her: “You saved me.” I tried to stay in the sentimentality in the moment, I really did, but my mind couldn’t help but wonder, “Okay, but who’s going to save us?” And then more seriously, to this: “Could have even James Cameron saved Alita?”
First announced by Cameron in 2003 as his follow-up to Titanic, the adaptation of the Battle Angel Alita manga (Gunnm in Japan) and its prequels took a back seat, instead, to the Avatar franchise. Long-gestating, Alita looked to be the next in a long line of anime or manga adaptations announced in Hollywood and then tossed away (see Robotech and Evangelion). But Cameron’s love for the property is deep, and he turned the reigns over to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids) to direct this vision of a post-apocalyptic future where denizens of Iron City live below the floating metropolis of Zalem, the last surviving fortress from a war several hundred years prior. The citizens below, including Ido’s ex-wife, Chiren (played by Jennifer Connelly in an unproductive role), and Alita’s love interest, Hugo, want desperately to ascend, while the Zalemites literally throw their trash, including Alita’s remain, down below.
The world of Alita is beautifully crafted. Participants were given an early taste of the film’s design through the Passport to Iron City experience, which, like the film, recreates a believable version of the future that feels suitably sci-fi while capturing the feel of a real living community, cosmopolitan and full of weary people just trying to get by. I was reminded of my time in Egypt as a youth, making my way through the bustling crowds of Cairo and unsure of how to navigate the city and culture—Alita, just entering this world, is much the same as I was. After being rebuilt by Ido and reared by him as a daughter, she must learn both the simplest of things, like how to eat an orange, and the complex, including the discovery of elements important to the city and the film, namely the hunter-warrior culture, consisting of bounty hunters who are law enforcement replacements, and motorball, a sports perhaps best described as gladiatorial cyborg roller derby, and highly anticipated by fans of the Alita manga and anime. The film is often at its best following Alita as she engages in her new life, the mundane and the dangerous, and as she learns to use advanced fighting skills trained and embedded within her.
Of course, she also falls in love. And that relationship is part of Alita’s largest problem, a direction good on its own but here contributing to a convoluted storyline. James Cameron’s greatest films are all relatively simple in scope: rescue the survivors, destroy the nest, and make an escape in Aliens; protect a young boy and his mother from a future killing machine in T2; break across classes and expectations during a great tragedy in Titanic. But unlike those films, which hurtle toward a conclusion with only a very few supporting threads to get them there, Alita meanders the entire time. Check out some of these plotlines: Ido wants Alita to be like his deceased daughter, who died at the hand of a motorball combatant, and led to a divorce. Chiren is also a doctor, but she works for the gangster Vector, who also employs Alita’s boyfriend in a way that may or may not destroy their blossoming romantic relationship. Vector promises both Chiren and Hugo that he will send them to Zalem, but Ido’s been there and says it can’t happen except through motorball—there are three motorball races, by the way, in the film. Vector, it should be mentioned, becomes possessed by the evil genius Desty Nova, who really runs the show, and uses a gigantic cyborg to hunt Alita. Said cyborg is developed by Chiren and is first encountered when Alita suspects that Ido is actually a serial killer.
And I haven’t even mentioned the bounty hunter, Zapan.
The Alita film feels like one giant manga, adapting the storyline from the first four volumes of the series and including material from the prequels in flashback scenes. It’s been noted time and time again that Cameron loves the source material, and it shows. He and Rodriguez stick surprisingly close to Yukito Kishiro’s work—the climax feels almost like a frame for frame shot from the manga. The directive from Cameron seems to have been to do so, but manga are meant to be meandering. They work best, sometimes, when they journey to unexpected places seemingly far from the story at large. Movies don’t fare so well when doing so—at times Alita was confusing and, like the character herself, out of control.
The dialogue certainly didn’t help. Only half-facetiously will I say that another directive from Cameron seems to be this, at least since 1997: Teenage characters must speak like they’re in a WB drama. Though to be fair, the silly dialogue sometimes works: “I do not stand by in the presence of evil” went from corny trailer dialogue to goosebump-inducing intimidation in the film proper. But by the end of movie, I literally spoke Hugo’s line—the one starting this review—before even he did. Such was the predictability of the dialogue, perhaps mirrored best by Vector, who seemed to be the one guy who thinks he’s sauve but actually knows way too little language to be anything of the sort, and Chiren, who never gets enough good lines to give her climactic one the power it deserves.
The actors do as well as they can with the writing, and a few even excel. I’ve already mentioned Waltz, who adds more gravitas and believability to Ido than is given in the comic. And Rosa Salazar is pitch-perfect as Alita, a character that in one scene must be spunky and cute and in another hot-headed and imposing. Salazar pulls all of that off perfectly. From the moment she appears on screen, Salazar is Alita.
She is also able to handle the physicality, but credit has to be given to the fight scene coordinators and the special effects editors—they had to make this diminutive character into an terrifying fighting machine, and that they did. She is beautifully crafted, exceedingly beautiful, delicate, and powerful in design. The choreography is wonderful and brutal, as the world is meant to be, and Rodriguez deserves much praise for this. Alita is a PG-13 movie that feels accessible to young audiences for 95% of its run time and then like an R-rated movie during the fights, as Rodriguez is able to get away with graphic violence because he is slicing up cyborgs instead of full humans, and blue blood flows rather than red. The Motorball scenes also do not disappoint—they are fast, vicious, and, most importantly, carefully crafted so that viewers can understand exactly what is happening and to whom without the action slowing down. 3D and IMAX are used perfectly in such scenes (no surprise coming from the master, Cameron).
If only the movie could have lived completely in those fight scenes, and in the quiet ones between Alita and Ido or Alita and Hugo. But it doesn’t—there are too just many chapters to unfold in a film that can’t decide if its a coming of age drama, post-apocalypic jaunt, sports movie, or simply just background for Alita Part II (particularly through the brief appearance of Jai Courtney’s Jashugan and an actor as Nova whose identity I won’t reveal, though I will say I mistook him for John Cusack at first). It swings for the fences, and when it connects, Alita hits home runs, but when it misses, it falls face first into the Iron City dirt. Alita: Battle Angel is a monumental effort that is at times incredibly enjoyable and perhaps even historic, demonstrating that manga can be made into a compelling film—you only need not make the mistake of being married too closely to the material. And with such intimacy, I’m not sure even James Cameron could have found a way to save it from being the beautiful mess it turned out to be.
Rating: *** (3/5 stars)