By Diego Hernandez
Years ago, as a high school student, I read and fell in love with Yukito Kishiro's Battle Angel Alita manga. Kishiro's masterpiece was not simply a thrilling sci-fi ride and superb penmanship: it was a tale with both brains and heart, a series that asked the question as to what it means to be human and then answered that question with profound, serious heroics, accompanied by the bravery, tenacity, and tenderness that all people are capable of, cyborg or plain old human. Shortly thereafter, acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron, who was more the King of the World when he made his Aliens and Terminator flicks than he was when he made Titanic (At least the use of a Celine Dion song made sense as a joke in Deadpool 2...), announced that he wanted to direct a live action adaptation of Alita. I was ecstatic, to say the least. Finally, a magnificent example of the much maligned and misunderstood manga/anime format (More than once I have found myself telling well intentioned newbs that if Monster or Elfen Lied or Berserk are "cartoons", then they are cartoons that make you mutter "Jesus H Tap Dancing Christ" while you lie exhausted on your couch), was going to be given the treatment the deserved by a legendary SF filmmaker, to be seen by the entire world, including skeptics who erroneously believed manga and anime to begin and end with super saiyans and sailor scouts. Finally, I thought, everyone would get to see the first great American live action anime/manga adaptation.
Except that nothing really happened for a while. I kept my ear to the ground but after not hearing much about the subject, I decided to simply tune out. The project, I figured, was dropped, a disappointing turn of events, but not all that surprising given that Hollywood has always been better at purchasing franchises than actually turning them into movies. Years passed until 2018. Perusing YouTube, I see it. A trailer for Alita Battle Angel (Don't get caught up on the comic and the movie having slightly different titles: In Japanese, its called Gunnm, which I choose to believe considering that I know about as much Japanese as a turtle knows how to fly), a trailer too impressive and advanced to be doctored or simply a fan made film, helmed by none other than that auteur vato extraordinaire himself, Robert Rodriguez. From then on until its eventual, delayed release date, my nerves were frayed. Alita had the potential to offer what no other manga/anime adaptation had offered before, the first western take on an eastern product (And why wouldn't I want to see, say, Wong Kar Wai or Park Chan Wook or Takashi Miike or any other qualified Eastern director adapt, say, A Contract With God or Ex Machina or Scalped or any other high quality western product?) Of course, there have been other western takes on manga and anime titles... Which have all for the most part sucked, from a version of Ghost In The Shell that was essentially the equivalent of a gorgeous but intellectually tepid super model to a version of Dragonball Z that was so bereft of redeeming qualities that it boggles my mind that anyone was ever talked into financing it. Horrendous to, at best, "meh" adaptations of properties that I loved aside, it had taken over a decade for an Alita movie to finally see the light of day. For it to be subpar, or even flat out bad, could prove to be an especially stinging disappointment.
I am very pleased to report that, having finally seen this movie, I can say that the wait was worth it. None of my fears about Alita: Battle Angel materialized, and the movie is virtually everything I could have ever wanted it to be. Not only does Alita join the club of stupendous live action adaptations including the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Lady Snowblood, Azumi, Oldboy, Ichi The Killer, etc, it carves its own niche and marches to the beat of its own drum, resulting in both an homage to Kishiro's comic as well as Rodriguez's most beautiful and emotional film to date.
The world of Alita: Battle Angel takes place in the year 2563, after "The Fall"/"Great War" has caused cataclysmic damage to Earth. Kindly Doctor Ido goes scavenging in the scrap yard of Iron City, the trash and garbage falling directly from Zalem, a celestial and wealthy sky city that is closed off to the impoverished people of Iron City (Only in science fiction, right? Heh, heh... yeah...). Ido comes across the top portion of a cyborg woman. Ido fixes her up a new body, names her Alita, and begins to father her. Unfortunately, although Alita cannot remember details of her past life, she does remember the ancient martial art of Panzer Kunst, which more or less throws a wrench into Ido's plan to keep his kid out of harm's way. Alita ends up meeting and falling in love with Hugo, who introduces her to the sport of Motorball, which is like a combination of roller skating and murder. Hugo wants to move to Zalem from Iron City, as any sane individual would, so Alita decides to enroll in Motorball, which is controlled and fixed by a corrupt gangster named Vector. In addition to attempting to learn more about who she was in the past and how she fell from the Zalem, Alita gets entangled with cyborg killers, all working for Nova, the elusive mastermind of Zalem who controls even the most fearsome power-houses with considerable ease.
One of the several reasons that I was excited about about Rodriguez, of From Dusk Til Dawn, Machete, and the Mariachi trilogy, directing Alita was that instead of him turning his Sin City adaptation into a movie, he ingeniously chose to turn a movie into Sin City, such was his reverence for the source material. While Rodriguez doesn't actually turn his film into the manga itself like he did with his page by page, line by line adaptation of Sin City, his love for Alita is clear. I love me some Mexican spaghetti westerns, but the vaquero director could have easily jeopardized his treatment of Alita by forcing his own usual style onto the film. Instead, what makes Alita works so well is that Rodriguez doesn't force it to serve him: rather, it feels like the director goes out of his way to serve the movie whose success he has been charged with insuring, learning new tricks and techniques along the way, making Alita stand out from a vast majority of comic book adaptations. Rodriguez is known for his preference for smaller budgets, so stepping up to make a 200,000,000 dollar movie, his most expensive to date, must have been a daunting challenge (Compare that to in City's 40 million, Grindhouse's 53 million, or Machete's 20 million dollar price tags). Still it is clear that Rodriguez, cinematographer Bill Pope, editor Stephen E. Rivkin, and all the several production companies stretched every single penny of their budget to give viewers the best aesthetic experience possible. Iron City is supposed to be a ghetto where social mobility is all but an impossible dream, yet the eye reels at how much detail the filmmakers were able to cram into the scenery (Even the detail of the scrap yard is amazing). Moreover, the CG, especially when applied to other CG cyborg characters, feels seamless. And while I do usually roll my eyes at slow motion used in action sequences (Wonder Woman was amazing enough a movie that I could look past the slo-mo), it feels as though its used sparingly here, and really just in order to accentuate the sleek, rich look of the film.
Speaking of computer graphics... Alita's eyes. Her large, bulging, computer eyes that were controversial the moment people saw them. However, I am happy to say that this risky gamble has paid off in spades. Alita has been criticized by other critics for its "stale" plot, and while there is perhaps some truth to this, it is the emotional, passionate, and maybe even anti-post-modern tone of the film that makes they eyes work. This is not a movie that is clever by half or too clever to be profound, as are too many films seemingly afraid to delve into authentic feelings and are instead essentially dry, ironic, arched eyebrows. Instead, Alita fully embraces the passion behind her quest and her choice to oppose injustice in all of its forms. Combine with that Alita's sense of awe and wonder, and it is probably no surprise that I either forgot that the titular lead character possessed eyes reminiscent of Margaret McKean or Osamu Tezuka, or I just simply didn't care. Why would I? The cyborg woman is simply too endearing, too heroic, and, indeed, too human for me to care about such small, negligible, trivial imperfections? If the plot of Alita was more concerned with undermining or parodying the mechanics of the Hero's Journey (Go look up Joseph Campbell), the eyes would have repelled me by its entrance into the uncanny valley. The more jaded might chuckle at some moments of the film, such as when Alita assets that she does not stand by in the presence of evil. Hokey? Maybe. But that is vastly preferable by the drama being undercut by winks and nods to the audience so that the filmmakers can show everyone how sophisticated they are because what kind of a naive simpleton could ever possibly believe that there are people out there who do the right thing simply because its the right thing to do? Being realistic is not at all the same thing as being cynical, and Alita succeeds brilliantly at knocking cinematic cynicism from its false throne.
On that same note, I will gladly buy a round of drinks for whoever came up with the ingenious idea of casting Rosa Salazar in the lead. Alita possesses an amazing cast including Christof Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, and one surprise A-list actor saved for the very, very end (Hint: he's been in a Marvel Studios film before, and he was also in a very successful, award winning movie that was kind of sort of about a superhero except no not really), but it is Salazar who is the break-out star. Not that there's any bad or mediocre acting in this movie: it's simply that Salazar is in the driver's seat and drives the vehicle really, really, really well. Salazar's performance runs the gamut from wide eyed innocence to fearless defiance, and it is because of her genuine, emotionally potent acting, combined with the poignant tone of the narrative, that not only was I able to look beyond the eyes and see a human being there, but that I cared about her development as a person during her journey. Incidentally, I never would have thought of hiring a Latina actress in order to avoid charges of white-washing a manga property. (Scarlet Johansson is an Avenger: Why the hell does she also need to be Kusanagi?)
Alita Battle Angel was worth the wait, and I do not think I will get tired of repeating that any time soon. Regardless of your beliefs, we live in dark times, and it is during dark times that we need movies like Alita the most. Science fiction is often a form of escapism, and there is nothing wrong with temporarily escaping the world that you live in: what would be wrong would be to stay in that other world for as long as you can without bringing the lessons and philosophy that you have learned back to your own world and your own life. The lessons of enjoying life to its fullest, of standing up for those too injured by life to do so for themselves, and of choosing what kind of person you want to be, are the lessons of Alita that could clearly be utilized in order to improve one's own life and the lives of others. As Wonder Woman did in 2017, in 2019 Alita leads the charge against the oppression of jaded indifference and to the liberation that is the belief in the worth of humanity. One of the greatest things that a film can do is encourage you to stare at the eye of the hurricane and then tackle it head on. Alita does simply this. What else could we expect from a human being?