[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.