Western adaptations of manga (Japanese comics) have had a bad trot. The Wachowski’s ‘Speed Racer’? Flop. Rupert Sanders’ ‘Ghost In The Shell’? Flop. ‘Dragonball Evolution’, ‘Fist of the North Star’, and ‘The Guyver’? Nope. Doug Liman’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)? Not so bad, but that was a “light novel”, which isn’t the same as manga... ahhh, never mind.
Point being, manga adaptations have been a tough nut to crack. So how do director Robert Rodriguez (‘Sin City: A Dame To Kill For’, ‘Machete Kills’) and producer James Cameron (‘Avatar’, ‘Aliens of the Deep’) fare with ‘Alita: Battle Angel’, their adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's cyberpunk manga series ‘Gunnm’?
‘Alita: Battle Angel’ tells the story of unnamed and amnesiac female cyborg (Rosa Salazar, ‘Maze Runner: The Death Cure’) in the year 2563, where a conflict with Mars has left Earth in a post-apocalyptic mess. Her intact head and chest are found in the local garbage dump of Iron City (rendered in stunning 3D, built on elaborately designed, multiculturally influenced sets at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas, and lensed by ‘The Matrix’ cinematographer Bill Pope) by a cybermedic, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, ‘Downsizing’, ‘Tulip Fever’, ‘Spectre’). Ido manages to revive her and, finding she has lost her memory, he feeds her an orange and names her Alita after his deceased daughter.
Alita befriends a teenage street punk named Hugo (Keean Johnson), who dreams of moving to the wealthy floating city of Zalem, which is tethered over the grungy Iron City. Hugo introduces her to flirting, chocolate and the competitive sport of Motorball. UFC with a dash of roller derby wherein cyborgs fight to the death, it's Shawn Levy’s ‘Real Steel’ meets Norman Jewison’s ‘Rollerball’. It also keeps the cyber-enhanced working class citizens of Iron City too distracted to rebel against the class disparity separating them from the elites who live in Zalem.
Alita soon gets swept up in a mysterious series of murders and cyborg mutilations, while discovering that she remembers the legendary robot martial art, Panzer Kunst. She also clashes with the hulking Grewishka (an unrecognizable Jackie Earle Hayley, ‘The Dark Tower’, ‘London Has Fallen’) and a preening bounty hunter, Zapan (a pitch-perfect Ed Skrein, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, ‘Deadpool’). Meanwhile, Ido spars with his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly, ‘Only The Brave’, 'Noah') , a rival cybermedic who works for Vector (Mahershala Ali, ‘Green Book’, ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’), a shady entrepreneur who runs Motorball. All of these baddies seem to be working for Nova, an unseen Zalem scientist who has the ability to transfer his consciousness into other people's bodies. With each skull-crushing punch and limb-rending kick that she delivers, Alita awakens more memories of her earlier life on Mars.
Cameron was introduced to the ‘Battle Angel’ anime by friend Guillermo del Toro and quickly fell in love with it, from the fleshed-out, futuristic world to the title character herself. Cameron announced plans to adapt ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ in the early-2000s, but while it would be mentioned in passing over the years (and inspire his TV series, ‘Dark Angel’), his focus on other projects saw it gradually slip into development hell. The ‘Avatar’ sequels meant Cameron’s plate would be full until at least 2025, so it seemed Alita would never get her film. Luckily, Robert Rodriguez asked about the status of the project, giving Cameron the idea to pass the adaptation over to him.
Alita, the character, is a technical revelation to behold, created with breathtaking VFX (courtesy of Weta Digital, DNEG and Framestore) so crisp and lifelike she seems to be a wholly new life form, alive within the liminal space of the screen. Equipped with a stylised appearance, including eyes as big as a Margaret Keane artwork, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ ingeniously sidesteps the criticisms of race-washing that overshadowed ‘Ghost in the Shell’ when Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a similar cyborg protagonist.
In the role of Alita, Rosa Salazar is a marvel. The actress' appeal radiates through layers of state-of-the-art effects, blended on top of her fierce and expressive motion-captured performance to create a dazzling character unlike any audiences have seen before. She truly is the heart of the film.
In the role of Alita, Rosa Salazar is a marvel. The actress' appeal radiates through layers of state-of-the-art effects, blended on top of her fierce and expressive motion-captured performance to create a dazzling character unlike any audiences have seen before. She truly is the heart of the film. At one stage, she even offers her nuclear-powered heart to Hugo so he can buy passage to Zalem, before tucking it back into her chest plate and chuckling, “that got kinda intense..."
Starting the film as an innocent but gradually becoming more cocky regarding her abilities, Alita kicks twenty shades of blue blood out of dozens of cyborgs and robots. When she challenges a bar full of hunter-warriors to a fight, it recalls the scene in Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ where Zhang Ziyi brawls with a restaurant full of beefy warriors, as each loudly proclaims his fighting style. It’s also hard not to smile when Jeff Fahey turns up as a laconic cowboy with a pack of endearingly crappy-looking robo-hounds.
Perhaps galvanised from the nonchalance that has characterised his recent output by the presence of James Cameron looming over his shoulder, Robert Rodriguez brings his considerable skills to bear when staging the film’s kinetic duels and exhilarating Motorball sequences. Blades, whips, spikes and sparks fly everywhere and a propulsive soundtrack (including a track from Dua Lipa) only adds to the enjoyably chaotic atmosphere.
The chief flaw of most film adaptations of manga lies with the script. How do you condense years of storyline and characters into a film-length running time? Unsurprisingly, this is where ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ stumbles. With a story that combines the 'Gunnm' manga, the 'Battle Angel' anime and new material, there is just way too much information to unpack about Zalem, Hunter-Warriors, Panzer Kunst, ion-slicing super swords and Berserker armour. Cramming the plot even further, there are also regular flashbacks to a catastrophic war known as "The Fall".
Between Mahershala Ali, Christoph Waltz, Jackie Earle Hayley and Jennifer Connelly, the cast is stacked with Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominees and winners. But as James Wan’s excruciating ‘Aquaman’ demonstrated, not even the finest actors can prevent dialogue from buckling under the weight of relentless exposition and funny names to pronounce. Some blame can be placed on James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (who co-screenwrote the flawed ‘Terminator Genisys’ and Netflix’s ‘Altered Carbon’). Rodriguez isn’t guilt-free, either - he took the original script (and a reported 600 pages of notes) and condensed it into a shootable screenplay.
While breaking this film into a clear Part One was a necessity (the manga is nine volumes long), ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ also seems to be oddly confident of its chances of receiving a sequel. This is indicated by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Edward Norton, Michelle Rodriguez and Jai Courtney (this film really does have an amazing cast) as three characters that will likely play a big part of Alita’s (theoretical) future adventures.
While it isn’t perfect, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is a big step forward by Western filmmakers in their attempts to adapt the Japanese manga form. It’s also Robert Rodriguez’s best work in year as a director and visual stylist. If you’re looking for something with a terrific female protagonist, a fascinating sci-fi setting, slick visual style, a sense of fun and kinetic action sequences, this film may be up your cybernetically-enhanced alleyway.