“Alita: Battle Angel” Review

Director: Robert Rodriguez | Screenwriter: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis | Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley | Distributor: 20th Century Fox | Running Time: 122 min. | MPAA Rating: PG-13

A long time ago, I heard tell of James Cameron stating his desires to make a movie based off the manga and anime Battle Angel: Alita. I doubted it. This was the era where there was also news swirling of a Neon Genesis Evangelion movie. Cameron still seemed committed to the idea but his schedule grew busier with his underwater documentaries and directing another box office titan, Avatar. But he kept his word and now we have what is perhaps one of the most faithful American adaptations of a Japanese manga and anime.

What I knew initially was that Cameron, despite only writing and producing, wouldn’t let us down when it came to visuals and violence. He retains most of the original story’s dark nature in portraying a vivid and dour society of a cybernetic future. In the many dumps of Iron City, a lower-class cyberpunk landscape beneath the floating city of Zalem, the kindly Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz) searches for parts. He discovers among the wreckage dumped from Zalem a mostly-destroyed teenage cyborg (Rosa Salazar). Ido takes her in and gives her a new robot body, in addition to the name Alita, as she struggles to learn more about who she is and how she ended up in Iron City.

Alita is obviously a lot different from the other cyborgs of the grim and grimy future and it’s not just because of her exaggerated anime eyes. It turns out she’s a skilled warrior capable of some ancient fighting style from the old days of the great war (there’s always a great war in these dystopian tales). Trying to learn the truth won’t be easy, especially since she slowly learns she can’t trust anyone. From kindly street rats to ruthless bounty hunters to deceptive men of business, it seems that nearly everyone is holding something from back from Alita, including Ido. All of it relates back to Zalem, how the poor cyborgs just struggling to make payments on their parts will do anything to get to the top. These dangerous players include the cocky bounty hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein), the grunt gangster Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and the shady corporate suit Vector (Mahershala Ali).

Alita’s world is weird but it suits director Robert Rodriguez who always tends to favor his films a bit over the top. Similar to how he staged his adaptation of the gory noir Sin City, he directs this film with plenty of fight scenes that push the PG-13 rating as high as it can go. It turns out that with a lack of blood and lots of cyborg characters, you can boast plenty of amputation and decapitation that pack a real punch. And Alita makes plenty of room for these kick-butt scenes that make the picture its own, from bar brawls to the sport of Motorball which looks like a more chaotic version of Rollerball with cyborgs.

Most surprising about the film was how apt it is with adhering to the source material, given that such faithfulness is a rarity among these American anime adaptions. Rewatching the original anime, I was surprised by how dark and depressing the content was given that there’s a tragic romance and the gutting of a dog. I never expected those scenes to be present in the film but not only are they here, they’re perfectly timed to the story with plenty of faithful scenes that while not as explicit still get the tone right.

I realize that a faithful anime-to-American-live-action treatment doesn’t exactly have the highest of standards and Alita certainly isn’t without fault. It’s a film so committed to its scenario that most of the dialogue becomes clinical and the heavier emotional aspects fall flat. But when the film embraces its oddities of cyborgs and the briskness of the brutality, the shinier parts of this cyberpunk adaptation shine all the brighter. Cameron’s vision for an anime transition to the big screen may have taken over a decade but it arrives with a lot more polish and punch with most anime adaptations that struggle to find a script and an atmosphere. Both Cameron and Rodriguez come into Alita with eyes as perceptive and ambitious as the oversized one’s in Alita’s head.

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