With Hollywood turning just about any property they can get their hands on into movies, it was only a matter of time until a major blockbuster based on a manga was released. Alita: Battle Angel slashed its way into theaters this past weekend. Although it may not be the first Hollywood movie to be based on a manga, it is certainly the biggest release of one. Most live-action movies based on manga or anime have completely failed critically and financially in the past, but is this the one to break that trend? Let’s take a look at how much butt Alita really kicks in this live-action adaptation of the 9-volume manga.
Alita: Battle Angel introduces us to a whole new world that we haven’t seen before. It’s an especially huge world with a lot going on in it, which can potentially be intimidating. However, it never feels like it’s too much. The worldbuilding is especially amazing in this movie. We quickly and organically are taught the rules and backstory of this interesting dystopian cyberpunk world, which makes it easier to understand certain events that happen throughout the film. The filmmakers cleverly show us almost anything we need to know about the futuristic Iron City, including the citizens’ primary source of entertainment, where they buy their food, how law enforcement works, and more.
The titular character, Alita, is incredibly well-written and fleshed-out. We know what she enjoys, what motivates her, and her goals. The actress and filmmakers actually make us care about her. Even though she’s a cyborg, she’s still relatable. She’s fun to watch in both the emotional dialogue-heavy scenes and in the fast-paced action. It’s a relief to have a great female protagonist in a movie who isn’t sexualized for the male gaze.
Alita: Battle Angel is advertised as a blockbuster action movie, and it definitely delivers on that front. The fight scenes are well thought-out and perfectly choreographed. Each battle feels like an exciting thrill ride. Story still happens during these scenes rather than everything being interrupted for a fight. A lot of the fights are emotional, whether it’s because characters are protecting someone they care about or because a lot is truly at stake. This emotion makes it even easier to be invested in the action.
The special effects are an absolute spectacle. Even though most of the characters are cyborgs and mechanical parts are everywhere, most of it looks real. The motion capture is especially impressive, which I would hope for since James Cameron (director of Avatar) worked on this. Rosa Salazar, who plays Alita, gives an incredible performance despite her character being portrayed entirely through motion capture. She was still able to have her powerful emotions show through the effects. The CGI and the live-action elements blended well onscreen. There may have been one or two moments when the effects weren’t as great as the rest of the film, but it’s insignificant compared to how great the effects are the rest of the time.
The production design in Alita: Battle Angel is just as impressive as the special effects. The sets built for the movie are some of the best I have ever seen. They really made this fictional world come to life. Speaking of the sets and background, there is always something going on in the background. There’s a million little stories happening on-screen rather than people just walking around in the background like in other movies. Between the sets, the incredible props used, and everything the extras are doing, the attention to even the most minor of details is astounding.
There are a few conflicts and subplots going on in Alita: Battle Angel. This can be tricky do successfully in movies, books, or any other form of storytelling. However, James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez were able to masterfully accomplish this. Each storyline intersects seamlessly.
This film completely grabbed me emotionally. There’s a lot of heart in it from several characters. I truly felt for Dr. Ido when he reveals more about his past. Every time Alita takes a hit in combat, I felt scared for her. While Alita is protecting Dr. Ido when he’s attacked by cyborgs in a dark alley, it was hard to not feel what she’s feeling. There’s also an early scene that features Alita, who at this moment has no recollection of her past, is experiencing things for the first time like tasting an orange and playing a game. Seeing someone’s reactions to experiencing emotions for the first time is actually really interesting and I loved how they portrayed it.
The movie also contains some particularly interesting ideas. Yes, there are hero and villain characters, but there is a lot of focus on a gray area between good and evil. There was a lot of bounty hunting and killing for money happening, or even killing people for justice or to protect others. There was religious allegory throughout the story that I felt was extremely interesting. A floating city in the sky known as Zalem acts as a Heaven that everyone wants to get into. Vector calls himself as the “king of Hell,” referring to Iron City as the Hell beneath the Heaven of Zalem. There is an omnipotent, immortal man in Zalem named Nova, similar to God in Heaven. Alita discovers she originally fell from there, hence the title Alita: Battle Angel. There’s also some prejudice occurring between cyborgs and regular humans, where the cyborgs are called “hard bodies” and humans called “meat bags.” I personally felt these unique ideas and themes throughout the movie were rather intriguing.
Alita: Battle Angel has a particularly weak romantic subplot. Alita is already motivated by trying to figure out her past, fighting against injustice, and fighting for her father figure. She doesn’t also need to be motivated by a love interest. I’m fine with the character having a love interest, and their relationship is pretty well-written and organic, but it feels like it steals too much focus at certain moments in the movie. There’s a particularly long scene where their love flourishes and they share their first kiss, and it completely interrupts the flow of the movie.
Hugo, the character Alita falls in love with, is frustrating. He’s doing work for the villain, and yet he has the audacity to tell Alita that she needs to be careful about trusting people. This kind of hypocrisy aggravated me. Hugo overall isn’t a bad character. He actually has a genuinely interesting inner conflict. However, he is primarily just used to be a plot device for Alita and introduce her (and the viewer) to different elements of this world like the sport of Motorball. He’s a pretty static character, and his inner conflict didn’t lead to much. He has some redeeming qualities, but not quite enough. He’s still kind of dull, is just there to serve as a plot device for the protagonist, and his inner conflict goes almost nowhere. He’s a tough character to really care for.
There’s a scene that takes place in a bar where we are introduced to a handful of seemingly-cool characters. We learn their names and what their special skills are. However, not much is done with these characters at all (other than the awesome dog-loving guy). Introducing us to a character like Screwhead for her to do nothing except show up for a fight later on felt like a waste of time.
The story of Alita: Battle Angel is extraordinarily well-written, heartfelt, and clever. However, it does leave some things left open for sequels, which we don’t know will be made or not. Alita still has a large amount of her journey left. Nova, played by Edward Norton, was built up to be a major villain, but we have yet to see much of him t all. I also want to know more about why robotic body parts have become such a common trend and how that started in the first place. All this being said, most blockbusters are written to set up sequels these days, so I’m not surprised this was the case with this one too.
Alita: Battle Angel introduced us to the thrilling sport of Motorball that’s a mixture of Roller Derby and basketball, but with rocket-powered skates and robotic body parts. Players skate around a track, body checking and tackling each other, attempting to get the Motorball into the hoop. I would love to see this expanded upon in the future. Depending on how it’s featured in any sequels, I can totally see it becoming the next Quidditch. I can imagine college students finding their own ways of bringing it to life and creating leagues of it in real life, obviously without the rocket-powered skates and robotic body parts.
As stated in the intro, Alita: Battle Angel is based on a Japanese manga. The English version of the manga is actually titled Battle Angel Alita (with the original Japanese version being titled Ganmu). I personally think that the name change for the movie hints at how the filmmakers want to name the sequels, with “Alita” being the title with different subtitles like “Battle Angel.” This is easily one of the biggest releases, if not the biggest, for a Hollywood movie based on a manga. Past movies based on manga haven’t done so well, so I hope this one opens the door for more good manga-based Hollywood movies in the future.
Oscar-nominated, A-list actor Edward Norton portrays the character of Nova for about five minutes worth of screen time. Between Norton being such a big name and Nova being built up to be a main villain, I truly want and believe there will be “Alita” sequels in the future.
James Cameron was actually planning on working on Alita: Battle Angel back in 2003, but delayed the project to work on Avatar. I’m thankful for this because it meant he was able to give us the spectacular film that is Avatar when he did. I find it especially interesting since Alita: Battle Angel uses similar motion capture techniques to what was used for Avatar.
Alita: Battle Angel is one of the most fun movies imaginable and still manages to have a well-written, intricate story. It has big heart and bigger action. This movie may potentially be the one that will open the door for future Hollywood movies based on manga and anime. Even if manga and anime aren’t your thing, Alita: Battle Angel is exciting for anyone to watch. It may have a somewhat weak romantic subplot and some plot points left open, but both are minor and can easily be solved if the film does receive sequels. This movie is so incredible that I’m willing to predict it will be nominated at the Academy Awards next year for Visual Effects and Production Design. Alita: Battle Angel is a must see, and I can’t wait for it to be released on Blu-Ray so I can watch it as much as I want.