Not all anime and manga properties have to suffer when it comes to an American live-action treatment. Some of them are taken in with care by people who find there’s a great story to tell rather than marquee value to reap. It has been done before with the likes of 2009’s computer-animated Astro Boy, which took care to stick close to its darker source material but also had enough inspiration to be its own thing. Alita: Battle Angel fits snugly into this category as well, considering screenwriter 1 had been talking about making this film for over a decade. To finally finish it after all this time is a major accomplishment, but all the more a triumph that the picture is not half bad as a cyberpunk tale, equal parts giddy action and vicious tragedy.
A dystopian future has turned the populace of Iron City into poor people struggling to survive in a world that requires expensive cyborg parts to do your job and stay alive. They all live below the floating city of Zalem, where the elites above dump their trash into junkyards. Among the scraps, the kindly Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz) happens upon a damaged but still living teenage cyborg girl (Rosa Salazar). The girl, whom Ido dubs Alita, can’t remember who she is or where she came from, but the doctor will help her get back on her feet—literally, by giving her a new pair of feet. Alita has a spotty memory of her past but is considered dangerous enough that a lot of people want her for parts.
Though Alita finds herself amazed at the world around her, including the fast-paced and violent sport of Motorball, she soon discovers you can’t trust the citizens with their many lies. She thinks she can trust Ido and his warm heart, but he’s holding back from her. Also hiding secrets are the chipper street urchin Hugo (Keean Johnson), the shrill doctor Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), the cruel cyborg mafia leader Vector (Mahershala Ali), and the full-of-himself bounty hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein). Among these deceptive characters, Alita picks up quickly on the cruel world around her, confident enough in her mysterious fighting style to jump into a bar brawl of bounty hunters.
I was amazed to see how closely the film stuck to its source material. Those familiar with the anime will notice a handful of familiar scenes, almost beat for beat. The oversized cyborg Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) occupies a number of these notable moments, ambushing Ido, smashing through a window to get to Chiren, and taking on Alita with extending finger blades. I found this faithfulness interesting for a PG-13 film because the original manga is a rather dark tale involving body mutilation, tragic loss, and a dog being gutted. The film features all of this, to a degree that I didn’t expect given its rating.
At the same time, director Robert Rodriguez still gives the film his own mark of creative action. He finds just the right moments in this rather grim tale to perfectly time a one-liner or a more giddy quip, never shy to embrace the action for all its fun when needed. He also brings a lot of brutality in the vein of Sin City by featuring characters getting chopped up and dissected in vicious ways. Cyborgs are gutted, cut in half, amputated, and decapitated, and one unlucky cyborg has half his face sliced off. Perhaps Rodriguez discovered Samurai Jack and realized you can get away with a lot of violence when your characters are mostly metal and circuitry.
While I do praise the film for its apt nature and visual splendor, there are still a few stumbling issues holding it back from being more great than good as an American live-action anime adaptation. Some of the acting doesn’t hit hard for scenes where we should be feeling more for Alita’s plight and her loss. When Salazar is kicking butt and savaging cyborgs, she’s in her element. When she has to make a tearful plea for answers and mercy, even those computer-enhanced eyes can’t sell the sadness. And, yes, her giant anime eyes are slightly jarring, but considering she’s sharing a world with the absurdly large Grewishka with his tiny head and the mostly metallic Zapan appearing like a shiny Terminator wearing an Ed Skrein mask, she fits in fine.
While I’m sure the film’s dour ending is sure to seem like a sequel setup (despite ending exactly where the anime ended), there’s enough strong action, visual flair, and astute love for the source to make Alita: Battle Angel a pleasing cyberpunk action picture to appease fans and the uninitiated alike. It still stumbles in some of its drama and acting, but after fans have suffered through such aimless adaptations as Dragonball: Evolution, there are firmer feet here for a subgenre that tends to tread on rocky ground.