Film Review: Alita: Battle Angel (USA, 2019) is faithful to its source material and very entertaining, when love isn’t in the air

English-language live-action film adaptations of manga/anime source material have been quite problematic, to say the least. While most of the films just fail to capture the spirit of the source material due to bad filmmaking (eg. Fist of the North Star, Death Note [2017]), other examples fail just due to the fact that they did not understand the appeal of it in the first place (eg. Ghost in the Shell, Oldboy [2013]). Or worse: the filmmakers chose not to understand and used the source material as a platform for a cynical cashgrab (eg. Dragonball Evolution).

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been any good examples out there. Some have achieved cult status (eg. Speed Racer, Crying Freeman) and some have achieved critical acclaim (eg. Edge of Tomorrow). And on that note, we have the latest film from Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel. Originally shepherded as a project by James Cameron to be made before Avatar (who is now a co-scriptwriter/producer), the project has been in development for a long time until now. With a talented cast, tools from James Cameron‘s arsenal and the vast imagination of the source material (Gunnm, by Yukito Kishiro), will Alita: Battle Angel succeed as a good adaptation of manga/anime source material?

Set in the 26th century (thanks to the changed 20th Century Fox logo), the abandoned Alita (Rosa Salazar) is found in the scrapyard of Iron City by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate cyber-doctor who takes the unconscious cyborg Alita to his clinic.

When Alita awakens, she has no memory of who she is, nor does she have any recognition of the world she finds herself in. As Alita learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield her from her mysterious past. But when her curiousity gets the better of her, it leads her to a rabbit hole of bounty hunters, reckless sports, flashbacks of her past, physical capabilities (of a martial art known as Panzer Kunst, which amusing consists of techniques of Wing Chun) and true love; eventually giving her a shred of humanity that she never knew she had.

Does Alita: Battle Angel succeed in being a good adaptation of the original source material as well as an entertaining film? For the most part, the film does succeed as an adaptation to the source material, since the story is surprisingly faithful to the point of replicating scenes from the manga/anime almost verbatim (except during scenes where the rating restriction would prevent the filmmakers from doing so).

Unlike the strong adherence to the story, what is unsurprising is that the visuals are spectacular. Director Robert Rodriguez is working with studio support (along with technology fronted by James Cameron) and he really shows it on screen, with all the kinetic action scenes, visually vibrant settings and meticulous details on the various cyborg characters given the strong focus. Props to editor Stephen E. Rivkin, who cuts the action scenes smoothly, making it easier for the audience to capture the 3D visual information as well as the fluid combat.

It also helps that ace cinematographer Bill Pope (who has lensed many visually vibrant films like Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World etc.) worked on this film and the film has the 3D implementation to help immerse the audience, with the perfect depth perception to discern background and foreground and of course the traditional carnival attractions of 3D i.e. all the flying objects and projectiles flying towards the audience.

The actors all do what they can with their thin parts, with established actors Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali lending credibility with their understated performances while supporting roles from Eiza Gonzalez, Jackie Earle Haley and Ed Skrein attempt to go pantomime and over-the-top with their antagonist roles, to amusing effect.

It was also fun to see cameos from Rodriguez collaborators like Marko Zaror, Michelle Rodriguez and especially Jeff Fahey on-screen. The actors that get the short shrift are those on the young side, with Keean Johnson, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Lana Condor given very little to do with their underwritten parts.

But the actor that does stand out is Rosa Salazar, in the titular role of Alita. Salazar makes the progression of the arc of Alita go smoothly thanks to her compelling performance, which goes through various phases like naivety, rebellion, anger, love and conflict with ease, even when the script doesn’t do her any favours.

Speaking of the script, like any cyborg, it comes with kinks and like the film itself, it has plenty of them. First off, the dialogue (courtesy of screenwriters James Cameron and Altered Carbon creator Laeta Kalogridis) is incredibly clunky, with many lines that blatantly say how the characters are feeling, without any sense of introspection nor audience participation.

Another thing to consider is the translation from manga to film. Saddled with a premise such as this, there are very few moments where the film attempts to jump outside the box and do something that transcends its formulaic trappings, and when those moments happen, they are moments that are verbatim from the manga/anime; moments that are unintentionally funny (eg. the fate of one particular character) or moments that can be seen as politically incorrect (eg. the revelation involving the main villain).

But the biggest flaw of the film is the execution of the romantic subplot between Alita and Hugo. While it may be well-developed and faithful to the source material, it discerns the difference between literature and film. In the case of the film, it stops the pacing completely cold and the romantic interplay is at worst: embarrassing; and at best: unintentionally funny. It also doesn’t help that the subplot eventually becomes superfluous in retrospect, since Alita’s character arc would’ve led to the same conclusion regardless.

Overall, Alita: Battle Angel is a flawed, yet admirable attempt for Hollywood to adapt manga/anime source material into an English-language live-action film, thanks to spectacular visuals, vibrant action scenes, great adherence to the source material and Rosa Salazar‘s committed performance.

 

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Alita: Battle Angel hits cinemas on 14th February 2019

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