When it comes to big-budget versions of beloved manga properties, Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record for delivering quality. In fact, Ghost In The Shell and Death Note have raised the question of whether there should even be any live-action manga adaptations. The medium is inherently difficult to translate into film because manga defies the rules of natural reality. That makes it hard to remain true to the source material without dramatically changing core elements of the story.
Alita: Battle Angel may have finally provided the solution to that problem. The film adaptation manages to keep all of the core elements of Yukito Kishiro’s manga series intact. For a movie that took nearly twenty years to make, Alita does an impressive job of living up to expectations. Although the movie is far from perfect, it manages to be the first good live-action manga adaptation that Hollywood has produced. Good, but not great.
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As Robert Rodriguez’s first true big-budget Hollywood movie, Alita: Battle Angel feels like the culmination of everything that he does so well. Rodriguez’s world building is top-notch, and he deliverers an epic scale while maintaining the intimacy of the story. There is still plenty of spectacle and over-the-top action. But the film also manages to provide the one critical thing that was missing from previous manga adaptations: heart.
Rosa Salazar’s mesmerizing performance as the titular character makes the movie work. Salazar brings a certain innocence and naiveté to Alita that makes her humanity shine through. Considering that Salazar’s character is almost completely digital, that’s very impressive. Unfortunately, the rest of the ensemble got the short end of the stick. Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skerin, and Jennifer Connelly are all terrific performers. Yet somehow, the script manages to let all of them down.
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James Cameron wrote the first draft of the screenplay over a decade ago, which may be why it still feels slightly outdated. Laeta Kalogirdis and Rodriguez eventually paired the 186-page screenplay down into a workable shooting draft. However, Cameron’s fingerprints remain a crucial part of this story. Cameron has always had a talent for telling universal stories about humanity. Cameron also gravitates toward strong, active female protagonists who take control of their own destiny. Alita: Battle Angel is no exception to that trend, but that also placed a limit on the depth that the film was able to provide.
As a result, the screenplay often feels disjointed, despite some excellent work in the first two acts. This film has a good story, but Rodriquez was forced to deal with some awkward gaps in time. That led to some serious gaps in logic by the conclusion of the third act. Additionally, there is some pretty painful dialogue throughout the film, and the script tends to rush through important plot points. This is a movie that is constantly fighting with the weight of its own dense mythology, and the screenplay is ultimately indicative of this struggle.
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Fortunately, the film’s visual design is truly impressive. The decision to include the so-called “anime eyes’ of Alita was very controversial. But in the context of the film that choice is surprisingly effective. Many of the design choices remain truthful to the source material, but the biggest addition is the colorful palette of this world. Rodriguez and the design team did a wonderful job of bringing Iron City to life. The action is fluid and easy to follow, while also adding stakes to the story. The visuals in Alita: Battle Angel are a marvel of technology and ingenuity. But there’s also a sense that WETA’s impressive work on the film won’t be as effective outside of the theatrical experience.
Unfortunately, the ending of the film is slightly baffling. The script spends a lot of time developing the love story between Alita and Hugo (Keean Johnson). However, the chemistry between Johnson and Salazar was tepid at best. Considering that the climax was dependent on their chemistry, it gives the film an anticlimactic conclusion that doesn’t have much dramatic weight.
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Alita: Battle Angel was intended to be a part of a larger story, and it only covers part of the source material. Therefore, only some of the film’s elements are paid off effectively. Perhaps the rest were saved for a potential sequel, but that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of story and plot. There are so many things that the film does right that it’s easy to overlook some of its shortcomings. There was some truly stunning cinematography, as well as a fairly detailed exploration of Alita herself. But ultimately, the one thing Alita: Battle Angel couldn’t do was deliver a complete story.