Alita: Battle Angel review: The best manga adaptation ever?

It’s been a long time coming, but James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez have finally come to terms with the release of their adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel! How were the overall results?

American adaptations of Japanese media often get greeted with an absurd, and admittedly mostly deserved, amounts of criticism regarding the faithfulness of the source material’s style and charm. Japanese mangas and anime often get the metaphorical “shaft,” so to speak, from American-based film studios that fail to understand why this IP is so beloved in the Eastern Kingdom. A difference in culture is always going to come into factor when adapting these properties for American audiences and that’s just the harsh truth.

Movies like Ghost in the ShellSpeed RacerDragonball Evolution, and Death Note serve as prime examples of American studios and filmmakers trying to shift the significance of the Japanese influence on these IPs and gear it towards American values, often with disastrous results. Japanese media often relies on its own culture to appeal to its own home audience, effectively making them impossible to adapt properly into an American film or show.

These are the challenges that James Cameron, Jon Landau and Robert Rodriguez faced when adapting Battle Angel Alita into the more Americanized final product: Alita: Battle Angel. Cameron, fresh off the monster success of Titanic, transitioned into the world of Japanese manga after discovering the manga of Alita and announcing that it would be his next project. Unfortunately, the project went into developmental hell for over 10 years before finally settling on low-budget master, Robert Rodriguez, to direct the adaptation.

A mix of cyberpunk anime, homely Rodriguez charm, and the big-budget epic atmosphere of James Cameron films, Alita: Battle Angel is a lot of things for the brain to process and that might be the film’s downfall at the box office, should audiences find it too weird to connect with. But Cameron has a habit of proving people wrong with the success of his films and it’s looking like that luck might still rear its head for Alita.

ABA_062_DAU_0060_v0409.87501 – Rosa Salazar stars as Alita in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Cyberpunk coming-of-age

Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of a mysterious A.I. robot found in a scrap yard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) and brought to life through repairs with a brand new body and the face and brain of a young girl (Rosa Salazar) with no memory of who she was before. Ido names her ‘Alita’ and soon we are thrust into a big-budget epic action sports adventure romance film and no, I am not joking.

Alita is a film that displays the utmost confidence in what it’s showing to the audience, however strange and bloated it might be. On one hand, we have the story of Alita figuring out who she really is and what her purpose in life may be. But while we’ve got that, we’ve also got a high-adrenaline sports film where characters will engage in the sport of MotorBall (like a battle royale with roller skates and a ball) to be granted a chance to go to Zalem, the floating city above Iron City that is seen as the high-class end of society.

Mix all of this with an action-adventure thriller where Alita is being hunted by mercenaries of Zalem and we get a film that is dead-set on setting up an interesting world with cool visuals, untapped lore, and nifty robotic creations to signify its state as a “future” film.

ABA_124_RFT_0180_v0519_rec709.00087573 – Rosa Salazar (Alita) and Keean Johnson (Hugo) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

In the hands of a less-talented director, these world elements would collapse at the base of the foundation, considering how deep the lore for the film’s universe is, apparently. In the hands of Robert Rodriguez though, it’s a much more comprehensible mess of a film that may still be tackling a little too much for its own good, but still thrives on an interesting world being given several somewhat developed elements to try to make up the whole.

“I do not stand by in the presence of evil”

Perhaps Alita is a little too ambitious in its world-building, but none of it would appear even the least bit compelling if it weren’t for Rosa Salazar’s star-making turn as the naive, but kind-hearted and incredibly deadly robot warrior. Much like Gal Gadot with Diana Prince, Salazar plays Alita with a well-meaning naivety to her character, marveling at the world around her and making friends with puppies on the street, while maintaining her lethal abilities in combat.

Alita is a girl dropped in the middle of a complicated conflict involving Ido’s personal issues, a conspiracy against her from the world of Zalem, and the slimy underworld of Iron City and what it can do to good people. It’s far from the most ideal situation, but Alita is a character that commands the screen with an endearing simplicity that’s missing from the rest of the film’s world, perhaps intentionally.

Salazar’s performance gives Alita a positive edge, making the audience care for her struggle in figuring out who she is and how she must attain her goal. Salazar’s Alita enters the realm of ‘Shonen Jump protagonist’: a goofy, yet lovable hero who stands up against evil and makes an effort to protect the innocent with their strength and courage. Corny? Absolutely. But it’s the kind of heroism that seems to be missing from most superhero films nowadays.

ABA_110_UNW_0680_v0690.87450 – Rosa Salazar stars as Alita in Twentieth Century Fox’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Often we get heroes too caught up in petty inner conflicts with their friends and family, effectively ignoring the ‘hero’ part of their moniker and losing all sense of what being a hero might mean. Alita is not entirely heroic and selfless here, seeing as how she mainly enters conflict to remember who she was before, but there’s still an innocence to her that resonates throughout the film and makes way for selfless acts of heroism, even going as far to risk her life to save a stray dog that is almost crushed at the beginning of the film.

Alita is a refreshingly optimistic protagonist played with an endearing strength by Rosa Salazar. If the Academy weren’t adamant about nominating high-budget blockbusters for acting Oscars, I’d say that Salazar should rightfully be an early frontrunner for Best Actress at next year’s awards. Salazar brings humanity and refreshing positivity to the strange cyberpunk world of Alita and that alone deserves heaps of praise.

A high-budget risk

Of course, with this being a James Cameron-produced film, the use of gorgeous visuals and expensive-looking battle sequences is expected to come into play here. Alita creatively benefits from its $170 million price tag to bring energetic and massively fulfilling action sequences that ooze style and substance. Seeing Alita battle a group of people at a bar or competing in a high-stakes game of MotorBall makes for incredible visuals that never falter, thanks to the film’s comprehensible cinematography. There’s a clear sense of what Alita is doing and it’s clear that the budget did not go to waste.

However, the film’s ‘anime‘ presentation will obviously turn off some viewers, making this a risky project, even for James Cameron and Jon Landau. The budget was incredibly high and combined with its promotional budget, it’s easy to see Alita falling short at the box office. The film is most definitely made with a love and care for the source material that was sorely missing in previous manga adaptations, but the source material isn’t something that simply ‘anybody’ can get into right away. It’s a bit of an acquired taste for American audiences and Alita is fully proud of where it came from.

It may be risky to be so bold in front of American audiences like this, but Alita stands out as probably the best live-action manga adaptation to date. It’s far from perfect and it does suffer from being a little too bold with its convoluted world-building, but Alita’s foreign charm, fantastic visuals, and Oscar-worthy performance from Rosa Salazar bring the material up a few notches and inspire some hope for other manga and anime adaptations to step it up and outdo the literally wide-eyed robot.

Next: Behind the Music interview: Alita's Tom Holkenborg

It is both an enjoyable experience alone or with a date. Alita will not fail you.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Alita: Battle Angel is out now in theaters! What did you think of it? Did you enjoy it or is it too much? Would you like to see a sequel? Sound off below!