Despite fully anticipating that Alita: Battle Angel would be nothing but a disappointment, Robert Rodriguez’s faithful adaptation scores big points with fans of the series – including yours truly.
It’s the year 2563. 300 years have passed since a cataclysmic event known as The Fall destroyed most of humanity, separating the remaining survivors between the last two major cities on earth: the rugged and brutal Irontown, and the wondrous city that floats overhead, known as Zalem. Amidst the scrapyard of Irontown, Dr. Dyson Ido discovers something remarkable while rummaging: a fully intact cyborg core. Bearing the face of a young girl, he reconstructs the cyborg to discover that she has no memory of her past. Alita, as he names her, struggles to learn more of her past, including what ultimately led her to be discarded in the scrapyard.
Full Review – SPOILERS AHEAD!
Since its trailer first premiered, the inevitable arrival of Alita: Battle Angel had been largely dismissed by fans as dead on arrival. What they saw was a hokey, awkward attempt to bring to life a vastly complex and intricate science fiction universe. The brief glimpses of action seemed promising, but overall, we weren’t to expect much from this adaptation.
Well – the movie arrived…and something strange happened: fans liked it.
While panned by critics, the real success of Alita is in its ability to appeal to fans of the source material, while simultaneously drawing in new fans with its dramatic visuals and intriguing sci-fi universe.
I will admit that I was hesitant about going to see the movie myself. Battle Angel Alita is a property that’s very close to my anime-loving heart, since I saw it relatively early in my life as an anime fan. I was first introduced to the world by way of its OVA in the early 90s, though it would be another 8-10 years before I began reading the manga, where the real meat of the fandom lies. I tore through the 9 original volumes of Battle Angel Alita, then proceeded to read through the following series, Last Order, even as the volumes came out at an agonizingly slow pace.
The dark setting, the characters, the high-intensity martial combat, the lore…I was enthralled by all of it. For me, it carried the same weight and interest in its universe that Akira did for many others. So you can imagine my unbridled joy, followed by supreme disappointment, as I charted the pending arrival of the live-action adaptation. Rumors of which started long before James Cameron turned down the project in 2005 in order to pilot Avatar.
I thought that I would let Alita: Battle Angel come and go without watching it, in an attempt to guard my heart from the disappointment I assumed would result from watching it. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice the positive trend on Rottentomatoes, and when friends began to confirm what I had been reading online, I just had to see it for myself.
I am so glad I did.
From the opening shots of Irontown (known to manga readers as the Scrapyard), I could already see the inspiration borrowed from the OVA’s interpretation.
From the moment the fatherly, yet tormented, Dr. Dyson Ido picks up Alita’s surprisingly intact core, Alita: Battle Angel answers the question: What would a manga adaptation look like if one of its biggest fans was given $170 million to bring it to life?
First – as I’ve already alluded to quite a bit: the movie is surprisingly faithful to the source material. While there’s been some hubbub made over the crossover of the Motorball arc into the film, the look and feel of Irontown certainly echoes that of the Scrapyard. The parallels hardly end there: Ido’s discovery of Alita, her budding relationship with Hugo, the reverence of Zalem, the thrill and brutality of Motorball, the intimidating presence of the mysterious and deadly Nova…each of these narrative points and many more are seemingly pulled straight from the page and cast onto the screen in gorgeous CGI and hair-raising action sequences.
The adaptation would be pleasing enough if that’s where things left off – but where Alita really surprised me was when it came to the acting, starting with Rosa Salazar as our ass-kicking heroine.
Rosa’s interpretation of Alita may seem oddly stale at first glance, but that makes her eventual evolution all the more entertaining to behold. While her love story with Hugo can be inconsistent at times, and the “rebellious teenage daughter” archetype may feel a bit overplayed, she ultimately manages to deliver a convincing performance as a fierce warrior, ready and eager to dismantle a system designed to oppress the people of Irontown.
And then, of course, there’s Christoph Waltz. He is an extraordinary actor – if you haven’t seen his work in Inglorious Bastards or Django, you definitely should. That being said, a role like this could be seen as one that you could “phone in”, particularly for an actor of his caliber. Yet, you can tell that Mr. Waltz is bringing his A-game in every scene with Dr. Ido, and it really shows. His fatherly care for Alita, the pain that he’s masking, his moral struggles about the kind of man he has to be in order to survive in the brutal world of Irontown…this is all wonderfully showcased in his performance, and it helps to elevate the film in a significant way.
While our central duo shine brightly, some of the secondary characters fall painfully flat in the live-action adaptation. Most notably, Jennifer Connelly’s iteration of Chiren. Formerly of the floating city of Zalem, Chiren’s past marriage to Dyson Ido and their shared tragedy in losing their daughter is meant to highlight how two similarly brilliant scientists could end up in two very different moral destinations. Rather than effectively play out this estranged relationship, Chiren is ultimately a throwaway character: a temporary distraction. Connelly’s done some great work in the past, but this was not one of them. She seemed uninterested in the material, and the lines came out dry and uninspired as a result. Unfortunate.
Despite this, viewers often don’t have time to be bored. Thankfully, another key strength of Alita is its superb action sequences. The combat sequences gradually increase in intensity, ranging from a late-night alley ambush to a deathmatch of Motorball in front of thousands of screaming fans. While the presence of motorball in general remains hotly debated with fans, it is without a doubt one of the most marvelous action sequences I’ve seen in recent memory, and makes me particularly excited for a potential sequel, which would presumably pick up on the Champions League Motorball arc.
Alita: Battle Angel certainly doesn’t get everything right, particularly when it comes to the pacing: the narrative feels overly rushed at times – as though Rodriguez felt like he had only one chance to make it happen, and squeezed in the scenes that he really wanted to make sure came to life. It’s easy to see that there are certain liberties with the plot that fans may not agree with.
That being said, considering the lofty expectations that Alita fans had set for the film since the rumors around the live-action adaptation coalesced into reality, it does a damn good job of hitting a lot of the marks. On the surface, its a highly entertaining science fiction film for viewers unfamiliar with the source material. For Alita fans, it’s the realization of a long-brewing dream. Time will only tell if the performance will be good enough to warrant a sequel.
Alita: Battle Angel0.00
- A surprisingly faithful adaptation
- Some of the most spectacular action sequences I've seen in recent memory
- Stunning visuals and impressive worldbuilding
- Christoph Waltz is a masterful Dyson Ido
- The narrative feels incredibly rushed at times
- The Hugo/Alita love story largely falls flat
- Connelly's Chiren is tragically 2-dimensional and forgettable