‘Alita: Battle Angel’ didn’t save anime movie adaptations (a review)

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ didn’t save anime movie adaptations (a review)

[Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox]

Live action films based on anime and manga and have a checkered history, with some drawing the ire of critics and moviegoers alike. This even affects films based on anime-inspired properties such as the dismal adaptation of the popular cartoon ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. Next to some of these films, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ looks like the saving grace of films based on anime and manga due to its general competence. However, as a standalone film, it rarely leaves the realm of ‘okay’.

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is set in the far future and explores the life of Alita (Rosa Salazar), a cyborg found in a junkyard by a scientist named Ido (Christoph Waltz). After Ido rebuilds her, she wakes up with no memory of her past but an eagerness to learn.

She meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a boy who wishes to travel up to the sky city of Zalem. He teaches her Motorball, a dangerous sport involving robots fighting to keep hold of a ball, often to the point of killing their opponents.

After finding out Ido is a bounty hunter, Alita decides to become one herself but is met with resistance from a protective Ido. She ends up helping him fight criminals anyway, which not only reveals some of her memories but also paints a big target on her back. Vector (Mahershala Ali), a wealthy man who rigs Motorball matches, sends a strong cyborg after her.

One of the first things I noticed was the CGI, which fits the robotics-based storyline by diving straight into the uncanny valley. Perhaps in an attempt to mimic the anime aesthetic, the filmmakers decided to take natural-looking eyes and expand them until they look like they belong on the baby daughter of a demon. It’s very offputting, though it does come with the benefit of making the character sympathetic. A lot of the CGI both in the backgrounds and the action scenes looks fake, which is a shame because the action scenes are well-choreographed and for the most part provide a good balance between speed and visibility.

Another thing I noticed was the whitewashing and the awkward way Ido was shoved into a role for a white man. I almost laughed when I saw that the name ‘Daisuke Ido’ from the manga had been changed to ‘Dyson Ido’. Now, whitewashing is a complicated and controversial topic, but no matter where you stand on that debate, chances are we can agree that this attempt to make whitewashing work for the film is a little silly. I would have preferred it if they had changed the name entirely.

Going past politics, most of the characters are bland but serviceable, with an exception being Alita. She is great at garnering sympathy, likely due to those big puppy dog eyes and Rosa Salazar’s successful portrayal of youthful naivety. She has some depth to her as well, with her stubbornness and eagerness to fight contrasted with her kindness and innocence. The screenwriters knew how to add depth to the characters as some of the other characters display moral ambiguity, yet they paradoxically couldn’t make many of them interesting.

Hugo and Alita’s romance, while sweet at times, is at other times boring and sappy. The actors have decent chemistry but the dialogue doesn’t give them much to work with.

The story is chock full of science fiction cliches, from a sky city and an innocent robot girl to morally ambiguous bounty hunters and a shady sport involving robots. These cliches are handled competently but are scarcely put in a new direction. The plot twists are sufficiently surprising but hardly mind-blowing, with one exception.

I will not spoil the ending but I will say that its tone gave me respect for the film as it took a slight risk and genuinely shocked me.

Aside from the ending, is this film really a saviour of anime and manga film adaptations? No, it’s a passable film with its fair share of positives and negatives in all areas of production from the writing to the CGI. Perhaps this will lead to excellent films that actually save live-action films based on anime and manga, but for now, this is a satisfactory science fiction film that doesn’t quite rock the boat but is enjoyable enough to make the two hours spent watching it not feel like a waste of time.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse review: with great animation comes great enjoyability

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse review: with great animation comes great enjoyability

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

When adapting a highly stylised medium such as comic books into the (generally) more tonally subdued medium of film, it is tempting to mute the vibrant colours and flashy art of the comics into something more ‘realistic’.

This can be seen in the way superheroes in cinema these days are redesigned from their bright, cheesy and impractical comic book counterparts into something that won’t make the audience laugh at them. This can have the unfortunate effect of making the designs less iconic and more boring to look at.

However, ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ has ingeniously found a workaround by being both animated and highly stylistic.

This film tells the story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a teenage boy who is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superpowers similar to the famous Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Spider-Man gives Miles a USB key to turn off a machine that could destroy the fabric of space and time.

After Miles accidentally breaks the key, he and multiple Spider-heroes from different universes have to find the blueprints to make a new key, all while staying out of the clutches of the machine’s owner Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).

Now, the idea of a story involving alternate universes certainly isn’t a new one, nor is a story involving the destruction of a world-destroying machine. That being said, it honestly took me a long time to notice the less-than-creative plotline. Why? Because I was too busy being blown away by the eye-catching visuals and clever dialogue.

If you are an animation fan, you must see this, preferably in theatres. You’ll thank me later, as this is one of the most gorgeous animated films I have ever seen. It’s full of bright colours in interesting patterns, expressive character designs and comic book-inspired flourishes that give the film a welcome meta quality.

The fact that the characters are animated in CGI but are designed with lines reminiscent of 2-D animation is a brilliant way of not only bridging the gap between comic books and modern animated films but also allowing the different Spider-heroes to exist in the same film. This is quite the achievement considering how the different heroes are modelled after a range of art styles from noir to anime to Warner Brothers-inspired cartoons.

The creative use of different angles gives the audience the illusion of climbing up walls along with the Spider-heroes, and the striking animation style makes for both exciting and tense fight scenes and hilarious slapstick.

I do have one small complaint about the animation, however. The moments when characters’ movements skip frames are clearly more of an intentional creative choice than a sign of poor quality. That being said, they are sometimes jarring and give some of the scenes a blurry effect that is hard to watch.

Moving on from the animation and art, the dialogue is full of funny quips and strong characterisation. The voice actors have great chemistry that makes the banter believable. I was surprised to find out that Miles Morales was played by an adult as I genuinely thought he was voiced by someone around as young as the character, which is a testament to Shameik Moore’s skill as a voice actor.

The music, mostly rap songs, is fairly stereotypical given the race of the protagonist but fits the mood of each scene as well as the protagonist’s interests.

The characters themselves are relatable and have satisfying arcs that still leave room for further development. As the film was drawing to its close I knew I already wanted to see a sequel, as I would love to see these characters again.

The themes of gaining confidence and appreciating family have been done to death in other films but they are handled competently here. The family theme is strengthened by the fact that both parents and their children can enjoy this film and relate to the characters.

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is a feast for the eyes, warmth for the heart and fuel for the funny bone. It proves that superhero films don’t need to shy away from their comic books roots to be engaging for a modern filmgoing audience. Whether you’re a long-time Marvel fan, an animation geek or simply a regular moviegoer, I can’t recommend this film enough.

Hear the stories of women in STEMM

Hear the stories of women in STEMM

Women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) have made their way into a difficult field and are now looking to help others do the same.

I made an audio story for Dscribe: http://www.dscribe.net.au/2018/09/30/hear-the-stories-of-women-in-stemm/

From left to right: Amy Searle, Madhu Bhaskaran, Marnie Graco and Prajakta Bhagwat. Photo: Claire Sanderson