I never personally experienced the Alita manga series or saw much from the OVA anime adaptation outside of a few select sequences here and there over the years. All I knew about the property heading into this movie were two things. The first of which being that the series was quite beloved by those who had experienced it, and the second being that acclaimed director James Cameron was one of those fans and made it a passion project of his to see the franchise adapted to live action. Then he delayed his adaptation, and delayed it, and delayed it. Eventually it kept languishing in development hell for so long it developed into a running joke among both fans of Japanese media and cinema in general.
Cameron would make the fateful decision to finally relinquish the directorial control over the project to Robert Rodriguez, a talented filmmaker in his own right, albeit with a signature style that many questioned if it would mesh right with the property at hand. Finally it would seem like Alita would have her day in the sun...and then, because the fates are comedians it would seem, the film was delayed one last time to move it out of a ridiculously jam packed Christmas slate of films. After all this time people were wondering if the movie would be worth all the trouble or if it would be the butt of many more jokes to come, joining a brotherhood of disappointing and misguided big budget adaptations of popular manga franchises in the process. Thankfully people can rest easy, because, for me at least, Alita: Battle Angel is Hollywood’s best manga adaptation yet.
The writing in Alita: Battle Angel is a bit of a mixed bag, but never in a way that it negatively impacted my enjoyment of the film. The strongest aspect to Alita’s writing is by far its rather strong character dynamics between Alita and her adoptive father figure Dr. Dyson Ido as well as her love interest Hugo. These interactions form the core to the film in terms of investing the characters from an emotional aspect. In particular the relationship between Ido and Alita is phenomenal, and might give some people inexperienced with the property some feelings of things like Astro Boy or Mega Man.
I also really enjoyed seeing Alita’s progression throughout the film as she tries her hand at different professions, as well as how they play out her memory loss subplot. One of my favorite parts of the movie from a writing standpoint, however, has to be at the beginning of the film where Alita is learning about the different aspects of Iron City. It’s not at all an original idea to help ease the audience into a world like this by following a character who themselves is new to this world, but Alita: Battle Angel is able to execute it phenomenally well.
There are a few hiccups in the writing, though. The biggest thing is that this film is clearly just packed to the gills with story elements from the manga. The material we get isn’t bad in and of itself, but the multiple subplots can feel at times like they are butting in on each other for screen time. There is also a sense that some scenes that should be more emotional than they end up being are like that because the film feels like it needs to move along to its next action set piece.
Another issue to be found is that while the trio of Alita, Ido, and Hugo are great, especially when playing off each other, a lot of the other characters are severely underdeveloped. Or at least underdeveloped compared to the level of the talent the actors playing them should be. The most prominent offenders of this are Chiren, played by Jennifer Connelly, Vector, played by Mahershala Ali, and Zapan, played by Ed Skrein. All three of these characters end up wasting their respective actors because they aren’t given enough to work with and show off their strengths. They aren’t terrible characters I never wanted to see on screen. Rather it just felt like they could have been played by any competent actor, and probably could have helped shave some of the cost off the film’s monstrous budget.
While the film does have a few problems narratively, it more than makes up for that with its stellar visuals. This film is just absolutely breathtaking to see. Iron City is a location that feels like it has been lived in for decades, no, centuries. The entire time I was watching this film, I caught myself darting my eyes all over the screen soaking in as many details as I could, and there were many smaller ones I greatly enjoyed. One such example of this was just a fleeting shot of a street performer playing a double neck stringed instrument. He was able to play with both necks at the same time thanks to having at least three cybernetic arms. His right arm had an additional detail of having sound holes carved into it. It was just an amazing thing to include for something that was ultimately so insignificant.
Branching off from that thought, I just have to take some time to talk about the cybernetics as a whole. Nearly every character in the film are cyborgs, with so many of the extras in the background sporting cybernetic prostheses and enhancements that I lost count. Then there are the cyborgs who are presented front and center on the screen, and it is no wonder they decided to spend more time showing these designs. They are just simply wonderful and meticulously detailed, especially Zapan’s, which constantly left me stunned each time I saw it. Weta Digital has outdone themselves with this movie. This is all before even touching upon their crown jewel here, Alita’s cyborg body itself. It is just an absolute work of art to see, especially in motion.
The fact that so many of the characters in the film are cyborgs allows for some truly amazing fight scenes. The action set pieces in this film are so damn good that I honestly didn’t mind that sometimes getting to the next one overrides some of the film’s sense of pace. It is here, more than any other aspect of the film, that Robert Rodriguez’s involvement is made well and truly known. Rodriguez is a master at fight scene choreography, and he excels here with the toys granted to him thanks to all the money pumped into the project. Not only are all the fights well directed, they are well lit too. Not once did I have to strain my eyes to make out what is going on, and that’s including a big fight scene that takes place in a dimly lit underground location.
Another aspect of Rodriguez’s style that gets through loud and clear in the action scenes is his calling card for violence. Don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you, this is one hell of a brutally violent film, and all I can do is simply speculate the reason Rodriguez was allowed to get away with all this visceral gore is because everyone are cyborgs who bleed blue blood, so technically speaking it “doesn’t count”. As a result characters lose limbs left and right, heads go flying all over the place, and I lost track of how many people ended up bisected. The movie waltzes right up to the line of what they could get away with and then firmly hugs it.
Finally, to address the big, doe-eyed elephant in the room, I honestly didn’t mind Alita’s massive headlight eyes. As I figured I would all the way back when I first saw the trailer for this film, I rather quickly grew accustomed to them. The film also makes it clear that there is actually a reason for her saucer eyes, but the justification for them is a bit of a spoiler, so you’ll have to see the film yourself.
While not as impressive as the visuals the film contains, the music in Alita: Battle Angel is sufficiently atmospheric. More impressive than the music, though, are the sound effects, which go a great way to help sell all the CG creations on screen having a proper sense of weight to them. When metal meets metal in this film it resounds with a satisfying metallic clunk.
Much like the character writing, the performances are a bit of a mixed bag. The clear standouts here being Rosa Salazar as Alita and Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido. Rosa Salazar is a wonderfully expressive actress, and she brings that energy to Alita with such aplomb that giving her big expressive eyes sometimes felt utterly redundant.
The supporting cast is mainly buoyed by Keenan Johnson as Hugo. Johnson does a serviceable performance, though it is noticeably a step down from the performances Salazar and Waltz turn in. Ed Skrein is able to salvage his role as Zapan a bit, because he is able to bring some of his trademark charm through in his performance as best as he can. One of the other surprises in the cast is Jackie Earle Haley as the towering cyborg Grewishka. While Grewishka didn’t really get much to do outside of participating in some cool fights, it was how Haley played him that surprised me, as I just never clued in on it being Haley until the credits rolled. Unfortunately Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali just don’t really do much of anything, and it feels like they simply did the best they could with what they were given.
There are just enough flaws that pile up in Alita: Battle Angel that prevent it from reaching the upper echelon of sci-fi films, but from a technical standpoint I feel this is a landmark film in the advancement of CGI. More importantly it is a milestone for Hollywood adapting Japanese media. As Hollywood turns its eyes towards the East for more and more material to harvest for the ever hungry machine of trying to create new film franchises, I feel it is important to acknowledge the few times they actually manage to get it right. This is absolutely one of those instances and finds fellowship with films like Speed Racer and Edge of Tomorrow in this admittedly extremely limited “hall of fame” so to speak. More than anything, however, as a piece of pure entertainment, Alita: Battle Angel soars.