Alita is a Pretty Manga-nificent Adaptation
Chris Kavan - wrote on 02/28/19
Alita: Battle Angel has been in the works for a long time, as writer/producer James Cameron has had this on his plate since 2003 but Cameron had bigger fish to fry, first with a little film you may have heard of: Avatar. It was also a bit early in the special effects department to bring his vision of Alita to life. After many years of languishing in developmental hell, Cameron finally chose Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, the Mariachi trilogy and Spy Kids) to helm the project, as he was busy working on Avatar 2.
The project began to take shape, even as big-name manga adaptations like Dragon Ball: Evolution and Ghost in the Shell failed to entrance audiences. And when the first trailer dropped, people were a bit... confused over the size of Rosa Salazar's eyes and it got mixed reactions. But Rodriguez and Cameron worked things out - they toned down the eyes while delivering action-packed hints at Motorball and Hunter Killers and, despite some calling this the first big bomb of 2019, Alita managed to claw back and, while not a huge hit, is probably going to at least break even.
Better yet, Alita is a film worth watching and one of the better (if not best) manga adaptations to date. A lot of this has to do with the casting of Salazar, who, CGI and all, brings heart and soul to Alita. From tasting chocolate for the first time to kicking ass in a barroom brawl to sharing a tender kiss to a chaotic Motorball race/battle to the death - she manages to convey both wonder and power as required. Equally important are two of the main supporting characters in Christolph Waltz's Dr. Dyson Ido, who is dealing with demons of his past while trying to raise Alita the right way in a dangerous world; the second is Keean Johnson as the street-wise Hugo who becomes Alita's best friend on the mean streets of Iron City as well as something more - even as he harbors a dark secret of his own. Salazar plays well off both of them and has a very organic relationship with them both.
The story of Alita is only metered out in bits and pieces, which is both frustrating and intriguing at the same time. Alita - at least what is left of her (mainly a cyborg head and part of a torso) is found by Dr. Ido at the beginning of the film. After fitting her with a body meant for his daughter, who has been lost some time ago, Alita wakes up with no memory of who or what she was. We find out there is a floating city, Zalem, the last of its kind as 300 years ago a battle brought down all the other cities. Iron City is a scrape heap where all of Zalem's trash goes - both the literal trash and the people it considers unworthy. We find out later that Ido and his now ex-wife Chiren (played with icy smoothness by Jennifer Connelly) were once a part of Zalem but were forced out in order to save their disabled daughter. Iron City is a near-lawless place where criminal elements are not policed by any military or law enforcement, but rather Hunter Killers who are tasked with taking out the most dangerous element for a bit of cash. There is also the dangerous sport of Motorball where highly-modified cyborgs race and battle with Vector (a seriously under-utilized Mahershala Ali) running things. While Vector promises many he can get them into Zalem, it is later revealed the only concrete way to find yourself in the floating city is to be crowned Motorball Champion.
Alita gradually begins to recover some memories - and it deals with the forces of Mars, who wage war on Earth those 300 years ago. She has knowledge of technology long thought lost as well as considerable fighting skills. This comes in handy as the enigmatic man behind Zalem's curtain, Nova (an uncredited cameo from Edward Norton) wants her dead - and also her heart (which we learn is a serious source of power), and sends the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) after her. She also has to deal with a pretty-boy Hunter Killer Zapan (Ed Skrein) who is taken aback that such a delicate girl could provide such fierce competition.
The film teases a lot but leave you wanting so much more. It is also clear the film is meant to set-up at least a sequel, if not a series of films. And while the main characters are given some background and depth, many of the supporting characters are given little more than a brief outline to work with. The biggest detriment of the film is that for all the heart and emotion Alita shows, it doesn't go much beyond the main characters.
Still, Alita looks amazing - some of the best action in recent memory and while those big eyes may have freaked some people out, it doesn't distract as much as I was anticipating. As far as I'm concerned, those harping about needing strong, female characters in films need not look much as Alita is just as important as a film like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel in bringing a strong, interesting and complex female action hero to the forefront.
There are things Alita could have done better, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Disney keeps this series going as I really think it has a lot of potential.