You wouldn’t guess by looking at it, but the production behind Alita: Battle Angel is the stuff of legends. Robert Rodriguez may be in the director’s chair, but this movie has been James Cameron’s baby for nearly two decades. Cameron has been trying since 2003 to get an adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel off of the ground, which is astonishing that he had this much dedication to the project. To call this a passion project for him would be doing a disservice to the phrase. You gotta admit, when James Cameron commits to a project, he’s in it for the long haul.
And yet, I’m pretty sure most of you are asking exactly what Alita: Battle Angel is. Yes, it’s an adaptation of a nine-volume manga series that had an OVA released in 1993, but only the most old-school anime fans would know that it existed, let alone have seen the OVA or read the manga. It just doesn’t have the popularity of other anime titles like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or even the filmography of Satoshi Kon. Battle Angel was a random curiosity that just so happened to have James Cameron as a mega fan of the series, and that has to count for something.
I’m just happy that Cameron and Rodriguez were able to make the movie that they wanted to see. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think the movie would have turned out as good as it did.
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Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Release Date: February 13th, 2019
Alita: Battle Angel stars the eponymous robot, Alita, who was rescued in a junkyard by a surgeon/bounty hunter named Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), who rebuilds her and gives her a second lease at life. In the world of Battle Angel there are only two cities left in the world. There’s Zalem, a floating city where life is perfect and conflict doesn’t exist, and Iron City, a Mad Max-esque city where everyone is in service to Zalem. Alita and Ido live in Iron City with the story revolving around the various adventures Alita has because guess what? She has amnesia and is trying to discover who she really is, if there’s any connection between her and Zalem, and piecing together exactly what happened during an event several hundred years ago called “The Fall,” which destroyed all life on Earth except for Zalem and Iron City.
If that sounds like a lot of info to take it, that’s because it is. Alita: Battle Angel is a dense movie, stuffed to the gills with characters with intersecting plotlines. The number of characters and plot lines happening in Alita simultaneously can be intimidating, with bit characters that appear early on becoming major supporting characters by the end. Thankfully it’s all very easy to comprehend. The motivations for each character are clear and distinct and weave together nicely so that you never really forget about a certain character, even when they haven’t appeared for at least an hour. It’s commendable that Rodriguez was able to clearly communicate to the audience a vast amount of character detail without making it seem like it was a big deal.
The secret weapon of the movie has nothing to do with the plot or the action, but the huge amount of worldbuilding put on display here. We learn about the relationship between the two cities, the role of bounty hunters, the non-existent police, why nearly everyone is cybernetically enhanced, what the hottest sport in Iron City is, what “The Fall” was, and even why Alita has ungodly anime eyes. They may seem like extraneous details, and most of them are, but it served to make the world truly feel alive. It felt like this was a world that people actually lived in and led actual lives. I shouldn’t be asking why a bounty hunter has a pack of cybernetically enhanced dogs, but damn it that’s a story that I need to know.
There are two immediate drawbacks to having such a huge amount of content in the movie, the first of which being its length. I’m not usually one to draw on a movie being too long, but Alita clocks in at two hours and 12 minutes with most of that runtime spent fleshing out Iron City and its inhabitants, not so much the central plot. To say the movie drags is putting it nicely. In truth, the other main drawback is that the plot of Alita is a bit of a mess. The movie has multiple moments that feel like the movie’s climax, only for it to keep going for another half hour. It screams of Rodriguez and Cameron wanting to be as faithful to the source material as possible but didn’t want to cut any major elements from it, instead opting to cram several volumes worth of material into one movie, afraid that they wouldn’t be able to make a sequel.
But I hesitate to call it a flaw of the movie because I still had a great time watching it, stuffed as it was. I’ve never read the original manga or seen the OVA, but I can say that Alita: Battle Angel accomplishes what I think the most important job of any adaptation should be; it should make me want to acquaint myself with the source material. After watching the movie, I’m now seriously debating wether or not I shell out for the luxurious hardcover renditions of the manga that are, to my knowledge, the only way of buying it in America at the moment.
The characters themselves are fine, but the performances by the cast really elevate them to another level. Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali kill it as Dr. Ido and Vector respectively, with Rosa Salazar delivering a strong performance as Alita. I was pretty worried at the beginning of the movie where Alita and Ido delivered some really stilted and unnatural lines that wouldn’t have sounded good no matter who delivered them, but eventually the script was able to ease up and let the events of the plot dictate the character’s reactions instead of forcing them to feel a feeling because the scene dictated it.
Whenever we weren’t fleshing out Iron City or exploring the world/Alita’s past, we were greeted with some fantastic fight scenes from some positively metal cyborgs, pun intended. The various cyborgs in Alita all have some crazy ass character designs, like a giant with multiple rocket whips, a woman whose entire body is made of blades, to a bounty hunter in a giant robot suit with buzzsaws for arms. Whenever I saw a cool character design, I wanted to see a fight break out between them and Alita, or even Christoph Waltz and his rocket sledge-hammer, because I expected a beautiful a fluid fight scene.
And man these fight scenes did not hold back. This may be a PG-13 movie, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was bordering on an R rating. Bissections, eviscerations, being crushed by a trash compactor, and multiple scenes of organ harvesting litter Alita’s run time, giving the movie a much darker edge than what I’m sure most audiences were expecting. I know that the marketing was framing this as a Hunger Games kind of movie where Alita would lead some revolution against Zalem and spread a message of youth empowerment, but nope! Instead, Alita gets to look forward to misery, heartbreak, violence, sadism, and the horrors of war during her time in Iron City. Alita has attitude and it’s not afraid to show it, which is so refreshing compared to most of the milquetoast YA crap we get nowadays.
Alita: Battle Angel can definitely be an imposing watch. It isn’t the most accessible movie and it isn’t afraid to get dirty, but if you’re looking for a movie that isn’t afraid to throw a few curveballs your way, don’t miss out on this. This is a movie that deserves to be expanded on in sequels. I don’t usually want to see a good movie be turned into a franchise, but Alita deserves that treatment. Never before have I seen a foundation been set so strongly for future entries. We got through all of the well-handled exposition and set-up, now we just need to let the plot breathe and allow the action and characters to shine.