Alita: Battle Angel is an American cyberpunk action film based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm, also known as Battle Angel Alita. Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau, the film is directed by Robert Rodriguez from a screenplay by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. The film stars Rosa Salazar in the title role, with supporting roles portrayed by Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Keean Johnson.
First officially announced in 2003, production on and release of the film were repeatedly delayed due to Cameron’s work on Avatar and its sequels. After years of languishing in development hell, Rodriguez was announced as the film’s director in April 2016, with Salazar being cast the following month.
I am familiar with the manga source material, having read it in my youth and was excited to find out how it will be presented on the big screen. Hopefully it won’t be a dud like most manga-to-movie adaptions ended up. Case-in-point: the absolutely disastrous Dragon Ball Evolution and the white-washed Ghost in the Shell, just to name a few.
Nonetheless, with a big name backing like James Cameron behind the production of Alita, expectations are high, especially on the CGI and special effects side of things. Avatar was a cinematic breakthrough for CGI and 3D animation and I was expecting Alita to deliver on these fronts too – which it totally did.
Manga don’t work well for movies probably because the narratives are written for a medium that requires serialisation. The stories are episodic, with suspenses at every turn in order to keep the readers coming back for more, week after week. Characters get added along the way as the series go along and more sub-plots are thrown into the mix. In this context, the source material is often so rich in content that it is hard to decide which are the best parts to portion out for a 120 to 180 minutes movie adaptation. How much and what are the best portions of the manga to present to a mass audience who are entirely new to the manga and characters? At the same time, there are the hardcore fans you need to please. This is why manga adaptations tend to work better for television series or mini-series like those you see on Netflix.
For Alita, the Hollywood movie adaptation tries to cram in the stories from the first four volume of the manga and it is reflected with the hurried story pacing and lack of depth given to most of the key characters. In just one movie, Alita went from scrap metal to being resurrected as a cyborg, goes through puberty, falls in love, got her license to become a hunter warrior, investigated a serial murderer, became a professional “Motorball” player, learned about her real identity from her previous life, among many other narratives. Everything was just bam bam bam all the way and you barely have time to digest each narrative when another one starts off.
The movie is entertaining though and far from the usual manga movie flops. The lack of story and character depth is compensated by the absolutely amazing CGI. Alita comes close to being almost human-like, sans the large manga eyes and oscillate between creepy and cool when you watch her interacts with real-life human actors and landscape on the big screen. Watching Alita move is like watching a manga character come to live – the dream of many otakus.
It’s clear then why James Cameron was interested to direct Alita himself originally – the opportunity to push the boundary of a CGI character to make it as life-like as possible, co-existing in the real world, but yet at same time, reminds people she’s not real with the large doe eyes.
There should be at least another sequel coming up for Alita if this first movie goes well. If so, I hope there’s more breathing room to develop more depth into the narrative and characters. Alita: Battle Angel is not perfect, but still an entertaining watch. It is now showing in Singapore cinemas. Go catch it!