Darke Reviews | Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Ah it feels like only yesterday sometimes when I was introduced to anime. Sometimes it feels like about a quarter of a century ago. Sadly the latter is more accurate. I’m not talking about things like Voltron, Battle of the Planets, Tranzor Z (aka Mazinger Z), or Robotech. I mean Vampire Hunter D, Nausica Valley of the Wind, Akira, Ninja Scroll, and yes, Battle Angel Alita. Anime at the time was unlike anything we had animation wise in the States with the primary sources being your toy commercials, I mean afternoon and Saturday morning cartoons, Disney, Bluth and Bakshi. Not only was the animation something new and amazing, but the storytelling was beyond the pale with complexity of character, depth of story, and a level of maturity we weren’t treated to in America. To be clear Anime wasn’t just cartoons – but boy did we use that as an excuse to watch them, it was adult storytelling with animation. This isn’t to say there wasn’t anime for kids, but many of the movie releases were certainly not and that doesn’t even touch the hentai material out there.

Since that time we have been treated to more and more anime and it’s influences coming into the west and changing the landscape of well everything. Sailor Moon? Dragonball? How about a little thing called Pokemon? Every now and then someone in the US tries to make a live action version; and we end up with Dragonball Evolution (2009) or the thoroughly and literally white-washed Ghost in the Shell (2017), or the Netflix remake of Death Note. Sometimes you get…wait I don’t think there is one. Make sure to comment over on Facebook if you think there is a WESTERN Live Action Adaptation that is good.

Where does that leave Alita?

Credit must first be given to Yukito Kishiro, writer of the original Manga series “Gunnm” that ran from 1990 to 1995. Laeta Kalogridis, James Cameron, and Robert Rodriguez adapted the Manga and 1993 anime for the screen with Rodriguez as the director. Cameron is well known for pushing technology to its limits and when it doesn’t exist inventing new technology so a movie like this feels right up his alley. What is interesting here is this is a movie he has held the rights to for almost a decade and even his show Dark Angel (2000-2002) was inspired by it. Rodriguez appeared on the scene in 1992 with his low budget El Mariachi and exploded into American audiences with Desperado in 1995. He is a visionary in the truest sense taking smaller budgets and doing amazing things as well as throwbacks to grindhouse cinema and other eras. Kalogridis was the creator of the amazing Altered Carbon series for Netflix, Shutter Island; but also Terminator Genisys and Alexander as well. This is a mix of talent that feels remarkably odd and shouldn’t work as well together as they did. There is a wild mix of artistic vision, cinematic style, and appreciation for the source material.

Producer James Cameron and Director Robert Rodriguez on the set of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Rico Torres.

The story, set in the 26th century, of a full bodied cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), found in the scrap heap beneath the last of the floating cities Zalem by cybernetic genius Dr. Dyson Ido. She has no memory of who or what she is, but with her new body and a natural instinct for the fight, she works her way through Scrap Iron City with Ido and local boy Yugo against all comers and odds. Will she discover the truth and is it a truth she wants? What will the price be for that knowledge?

This is an amazingly solid lift from the source material. As I watch the original 1993 OVA writing this review I can’t help but be impressed with the number of scenes and lines of dialogue lifted frame for frame. It isn’t a perfect adaptation of course as they must pad out the run time, alter the story to fit, and make their own changes for audiences. Many characters though are 100% true to their original material even with this padding, others are significantly different.  Alita, for me, also avoids the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope as this character truly is about and for her own agency so that is a win that shouldn’t be discounted. The problem comes in with the clashing styles of the material, modern filmmakers, and almost being too true to the story – which is a really odd flaw. Scenes that were included from the Anime and Manga feel jarring at times as they don’t mesh as well as they could with the film adaptation of the story. This can create an emotionally disjointed film with some odd rises and falls that leave you more uncertain than brought along on the ride. I am impressed how they avoid westernizing and well to be clear Americanizing the movie, but that does run the risk of alienating some audiences.

This isn’t to say the actors, with Rodriguez in the directors chair, don’t give it their all. Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner) owns the necessary complexity to play the titular character. She plays fragile, she plays innocent, she plays bad ass and makes it all work. True some of the dialogue (with corresponding music) doesn’t work but she tries and within the context of the story had it been placed elsewhere would have worked amazingly. I said it with Death Cure and I say it again Salazar is a talent to keep an eye on and deserves more roles.  Christoph Waltz, is somewhere between phoning it in and not knowing what kind of movie he is in. Waltz phoning it in is still better than many actors best days so it worked even when it shouldn’t.  I wish that Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly had been given more screen time as they own the camera when they are present.

Visually this movie is aces. I expect nothing less with Cameron in the producers chair but it cannot be understated how amazingly detailed the work in this movie is. Yes, the eyes are odd; but you need to appreciate that it is consistent throughout the movie and feels true to the alien, cybernetic nature that marks Alita as other. That doll like look is part of what makes her who she is and I kind of like it.  The Motorball scenes and other cyborg combat are just flat out amazing and remind me this is in fact live action anime.

I wish I could say it was all good here, but it’s not. The movie alternates between dragging and flitting from scene to scene just so they can cover some beats that really just dont need to be there. I think another pass on the script or another walk through the editing room could have done the movie a favor or two. I would need to watch it again, but the other lackluster thing was the music by Junkie XL. I can’t think of who else I would have gotten for the music, but it just was not inspiring.

TL:DR?

I like this movie. I am just sad I can’t say I love this movie. There is so much going for it from the visuals to the acting, that the editing and compressed story hurt due to how they were put together. As I was watching I felt like this should have been a new experiment for Cameron where he does a “theatrical mini series”; in which he releases multiple 75 minute chunks of a movie that deserves to be told and witnesses on the big screen. With such a packed slate of movies coming later this year, I am terribly afraid Alita Battle Angel will fall.

Should I see it?

Are you a fan of anime, this particular anime, manga in general? Yes. Go. Go now. If you were curious about the movie put down the money for the nice seats and enjoy a visual spectacle. If you were weirded out by the eyes and going what is this thing? Yeah…probably a safe skip.

Is 3-D needed?

No.

Would you see it again though?

Probably. Might even do it this weekend. Still need to see Happy Death Day 2U though, that comes first. Then Alita again.

Ok so buying it?

Yeah this is absolutely worthy of the collection. It has enough great moments and more than enough good moments and no real ‘bad’ moments to make me enjoy it on multiple viewings

That was a weird sentence.

Yes. Yes it was. This is not a bad movie, this is a good movie with great people behind it trying to be a very good movie. I don’t know what the secret ingredient here is precisely, I just know that it was absent and that is kinda sad. Unlike other movies (Glass) not anger inducing or frustrating, just …sad. I had a good time with Alita: Battle Angel, but I kept wanting and hoping for a bit more. I think with the people behind it that was reasonable.

Worth the money. Worth the rewatch for me. Who knows maybe I’ll enjoy it more the second time.

 

Special Edit Note: I didn’t mention this is the best western made live action Anime by leagues. It is. The bar is just so low it’s not fair to Alita to mention it.