Alita: Battle Angel review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
For years, James Cameron had been talking about adapting the anime/manga of Battle Angel Alita into a live-action movie. He assured everyone this project was still happening way back in the early 2000s but a plethora of other projects, from undersea documentaries to sci-fi spectacle epics, pushed back this film from happening. I was starting to doubt this would ever happen, even with director Robert Rodriguez involved, given that he had been running his mouth about plenty of projects that didn’t happen (remember when he wanted to do The Jetsons?). And, let’s face it, most Japanese animated properties that make the jump to American live-action tend to fall on their face. Hard.
But, wow, was I shocked to not only see Battle Angel finally come to life but that it’s actually a good film. Heck, I’ll go so far as to say it’s the best American adaptation of an anime, for whatever that merit may be worth. It’s a respectful adaptation in visuals, story, characters, and the grim tone of cyborgs slicing and dicing each other in a dystopian society. In the department of pleasing fans, this one ranks high.
Thankfully the film isn’t drowned in so much lore that a newcomer won’t feel distant coming in cold. It’s a fairly simple story in its construction, despite being one of a futuristic tech, bounty hunting, and absurd bloodsports. Alita (Rosa Salazar) is found in the junkyards of the lower city, only a third of her body remaining. She is discovered by the kindly Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cyborg doctor that lets people pay him back whenever. Alita is a special case where he gives her a brand new body as she struggles to recover her memory. She slowly starts becoming oriented with the cyborg populated town, learning about everything from how great an orange tastes to the brutal pastime of Motorball, which looks like a more brutal cyborg version of roller derby.
Alita also begins to learn how little she knows about herself and those around her. Everybody is holding back a secret, from Ido in his sordid past to his conspiring wife to a cruel gang leader (Mahershala Ali) to a plucky scrapper love interest (Keean Johnson). But she’ll also soon discover she’s not so innocent or defensive that she can easily take on the whole corrupt system that wants her slaughtered for parts. And so Alita must fight her way through plenty of cyborgs that want to crush her for a bounty, including the giant brute Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and the egotistical shiny bot Zapan (Ed Skrein).
Similar to how Rodriguez directed Sin City, Battle Angel pushes its action scenes as hard as they can in PG-13 for the most ouch-worthy moments. Characters will be decapitated, amputated, sliced in half, or viciously torn to shreds in a manner that will make one react with the same twinge of an R-rated action picture. It’s also a lot of fun when Alita becomes aware of her abilities, confident enough to stroll into a bar full of cyborg bounty hunters and kick every one of their mechanical butts with glee.
The action in the film is intense to be sure but I was just as amazed by how faithful the film stuck to the anime’s darker tone. This is a story that involved mutilation, midnight murders, tragic romances, body parts chopped up, and a dog meeting a gruesome fate. I never expected the film to go this far with the source material but, again, I’m surprised.
Alita: Battle Angel does have a few kinks in its armor with the dialogue being rather base and the actors delivering some performances that don’t exactly sell the emotion of the tougher scenes. But any scene where Alita is taking charge and carving up her competitors, the movie shines as a sci-fi action epic of great visual effects and a story with teeth. When it comes to adopting such a work, this adaptation shines brighter above the rest with a purpose in its conception, a faithfulness to the source, and style all its own.