Alita: Battle Angel isn’t the highest profile title to be adapted from a Japanese manga. Stories like Death Note and Ghost in the Shell have received live-action adaptations and were huge disappointments. It wasn’t that these titles needed a big name director either because even Spike Lee tried his hand at adapting the Oldboy manga. The less said about that, the better. Leave it to James Cameron to discover how you bring a manga to the big screen. The secret, it turns out, is that you don’t mess up the source material.
Since Cameron is tied up with multiple Avatar movies, he turned to a longtime collaborator to direct his passion project in Sin City director Robert Rodriguez. And make no mistake, this is a passion project for Cameron. He has been trying to get Battle Angel made in some form since the early 00s after he was introduced to the material by Guillermo del Toro. It was love at first sight for Cameron. He had a young daughter he pictured going through the same life experiences as Alita. Perhaps it also had to do with the fact that the manga, written by Yukito Kishiro, featured cyborgs and body augmentation that Cameron explored in his own works with Terminator and Avatar.
We are first introduced to Alita (Rosa Salazar), not as a completed cyborg, but rather trash from the heavens above. In the year 2563, there are just two different classes of people: those who live on the floating paradise known as Zalem, and those who long to be there. Alita is trash from Zalem, but Cybersurgeon Dr. Ito (Christoph Waltz) finds her remains among the waste and brings her back to life. The successful surgery had the unfortunate effects of amnesia, causing her to forget a bunch of secrets that could change her world.
In addition to Alita, there are plenty of other unique and memorable characters. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and Hugo (Keean Johnson) both want to get to Zalem by any means. Chiren was formally a resident of Zalem, but an unfortunate incident made it impossible for her to stay. Hugo has always lived on the surface, but he believes that there is so much more to life than the cards he has been dealt. Both of them seek the help and guidance of Vector (Mahershala Ali), who has made promises to give them with passage to Zalem under the right circumstances. This could have easily been Ali’s Jupiter Ascending moment, but his character is more of a cipher than a legitimate threat. There is always a more powerful foe to challenge Alita and her friends.
Alita: Battle Angel is a technical showcase. When the director of Titanic and Avatar asks for money, the correct answer seems to be how much. The fluid action sequences and incredible motion capture could’ve only been possible with a significant budget. Alita moves through the air with ease, and many of the cyborgs fell organic to the proceedings. Even the problem with the Alita’s large anime eyes has been fixed, with the special FX team finding a happy medium. Alita: Battle Angel had the benefit of being a project of Weta Digital, one of the premier FX houses in the world, responsible for films like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Avengers: Infinity War, and Game of Thrones Season 8. It was important for Alita to be a believable character in this world, interacting with other humans without it looking unnatural. The technology doesn’t work without an actor and Salazar is up to the task. She characterizes Alita as someone who is just discovering a magical world, but who also has a lot of command over her life. She’s innocent but not afraid. And when the time comes to protect those that she loves, she is ready.
Another technical element in the movie was the addition of Motorball. Motorball is a sport that the inhabitants of this world play. The characters use rollerskates and participate in a high octane; no holds-bared game of rugby. If you saw the promotional materials for Alita, you’d be surprised to learn that a large portion of the action features this sport. There is a connection to Motorball for each of the characters, and if I didn’t know better, I’d believe that the source material was a sports anime. Cameron must’ve seen the theatrical benefits of bringing this sport to life and made a change in the narrative. It becomes one of the more thrilling elements of the film, with Alita facing off against multiple foes, even if we never fully understand the rules of the game.
Being the best manga adaptation also comes with some limitations of the source material. Alita: Battle Angel’s story comes across as chapters of a book. It doesn’t organically flow together as much as it feels stitched together. Multiple points in the movie signal the end of one narrative arc, only for the story to take a hard left turn and focus on another problem. One instance Christoph Waltz is begging his cyborg daughter never to become a Motorball athlete, the next moment he is customizing a helmet for her. The other issue is the tacked on love story. Alita and Hugo have an instant attraction for one another and the big finale to work, it is vital that this connection is showcased and developed throughout the film. Unfortunately, most of their moments bring the movie to a complete stop, and the climax feels like a missed opportunity. What was supposed to be the crowning moment, feels more like an afterthought.
Alita: Battle Angel ends with one of the most jarring stopping points I’ve felt in cinema in a while. It’s a big gamble for an imaginary sequel. That’s too bad because Alita is an entertaining cyberpunk movie about a young woman trying to survive in a cruel dystopian environment. Cameron recognized the strengths of the novel and didn’t change them. Being the best manga adaptation is a win, but there is room for improvement. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to see more of the adventures of Alita as Cameron and Rodriguez have found the right formula.