By Terry Lakins, Staff Writer
It’s no secret that American depictions of anime on the big screen are usually bigger failures, both commercially and critically. For a movie lover and a manga/anime fan like myself, I’ve come to see Hollywood as the titular loving, but out of touch uncle. You love your uncle because they are family, but you cringe at their tone deafness and abysmal decision-making. That is Hollywood’s attitude towards anime/manga adaptations and it’s why most viewers are cautiously optimistic at best. But Hollywood seems to be getter better these days and Alita: Battle Angel is proof of that. Alita is flawed, but it surprised me on how enjoyable of an experience it was.
The story in set a post-apocalyptic junkyard metropolis called Iron Town. A scientist digging through a scrap heap finds the remains of a female cyborg and decides to rebuild her. Naming her Alita, the girl has no recollection of her past and decides to set out to remember who she was. Plot wise this story is simple, but it’s the world that drives the story. Alita is played brilliantly by Rosa Salazar, who manages to capture moments of wonderment, tenderness, and tenacity. The rest of the actors in the film are fine, but Salazar is the standout in this film, bringing such a sweet charm to her character.
Salazar’s performance is only part of this films appeal; the other part is the technology that creates her character and the world beyond. Salazar is portrayed completely as a CGI character in the film, acting right next to human characters. Even as a CGI rendered character Alita manages to look incredibly realistic, while still looking out of this world. Though this isn’t the first time this type of CGI has been employed, this is truly on a whole different level. If Avatar was James Cameron just playing around, then Alita: Battle Angel is the evolution of that style. With Salazar doing everything with a motion capture suit and bringing a true level of humanity to the character, the ending result is nothing short of a technical achievement.
Alita isn’t the only one getting the CGI treatment. In this world many characters are also cyborgs, so they’ve had their bodies enhanced with machinery. You’ll often see characters, some partially in CGI and others completely in CGI, walking amongst the crowded streets of Iron City next to regular humans. The detailed machinery you see is so visually appealing it may take multiple viewings to appreciate it everything. The city itself is nothing short of a cyberpunk dream. Densely packed streets, a hodge-podge of building architecture, culturally diverse denizens, intriguing world specific elements, and a dangerous urban feel is all here in the setting. Iron City is a character itself, and while it’s a bit brighter than your typical cyberpunk outing, it stands up there with the best of them.
The biggest highlight of the film is the action scenes. These CGI fueled battles manage to be thrilling and overtop, which makes sense giving the cyberpunk style. That intricate machinery comes into play here, with characters sporting weapons of all distinction from their cyborg bodies. They are visually stunning, interestingly executed, and have an excited energy to them. If you ever wondered what an anime battle would look like live action, this is the closest thing I’ve ever seen. A standout scene is a bar fight filled with cyborg bounty hunters, one of the best scenes in the movie.
The beauty of this film does not come without its flaws. The weakest aspect of this film is the story overall. Now to be fair I am not familiar with the source material on a imitate level, so I can’t make judgements based on how well it compares. I can easily assume certain things has to change for one reason or another. I’m fine with that if they are not disruptive or disrespectable of the original work. But for a newcomer to the franchise I can easily say a lot of the story beats were predictable. This didn’t ruin the film for me, but I wasn’t blown away by narrative. I think when looking at the characters on a more individual basis the film flows better but overall the story is a bit typical. This is also an origin story, which doesn’t help its case.
Speaking of origin stories, the way this film is setup has all the makings for sequels. Hollywood has this down to a science. They know exactly when to assert the right type of lines and moments to reinforce the idea of a new franchise. This is a terrible idea for Hollywood, only because they have no tact when doing it. It made sense when they started out doing big franchises like Marvel more than a decade ago. But they honestly can’t keep doing the same obvious tricks and not expect the audience to notice. A better option would be to treat the film like a standalone outing. Make it like it’s the last one they’ll ever do and pull out all the stops to deliver the best experience. Any hints of a sequel should be subtle and minimal at best.
Because this is an adaptation of a Japanese manga/anime white washing is almost inevitable. Hollywood has shamelessly committed this sin many times but thankfully this seems to be mostly a non-issue here. The background characters are very racially diverse, which fits in well with the densely packed Iron City. Alita herself was intended to be ethnically ambiguous and this is represented well in the film. With Dyson Ido, his character’s name was changed (he originally was called Diasuke) and he is portrayed as older here by actor Christoph Waltz. I think this is okay because the character looks very European in the manga, despite be hinted at mixed ancestry. The name swap makes sense, but it still may be an issue for the hardcore fans. This change is way less offensive than Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Ghost in the Shell’s main protagonist, which should have been portrayed by a Japanese actress. Overall, this is a minor point in this film, but it still needs to be talked about because Hollywood still struggles with it.
While Alita: Battle Angel might not be whole package, it was beautiful and fun experience. Adaptations of alternate media have been getting better. For the longest time video game movies were thought to only be terrible slogs and Netflix’s Castlevania proved that theory wrong. Alita might not be groundbreaking but it’s a step into the right direction and the closest thing to a good anime adaptation we’ve got. I think we are on the cusp of something big. If Hollywood can keep getting better with these adaptations, we might see some amazing films to come.