Live action anime and manga adaptations stewarded by western film studios don't have a great track record. Maybe a decade-plus in development hell and some big CGI eyes will help "Alita" (based on Yukito Kishiro's "Gunnm") make the leap to the big screen? Here's what the reviews have to say:
There's A Lot Of Story Stuffed Into The Film…
In the far future, the head and torso of what looks like a cybernetic young girl is found in a scrapyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who works as a repairman for all the various cyborgs and people with machine parts who live in Iron City. Ido gives the girl a new mechanical body and names her Alita, after she wakes up and can't remember a thing about herself. Iron City is presided over by a bigger, fancier floating city, the last of its kind that somehow survived a giant war long ago — a war in which Alita played an important part, as she soon discovers.
There's the introduction of the sport Motorball, run by the mysterious Vector (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) who has designs on capturing Alita, using an army of paid bounty-hunting cyborgs of various degrees in quality. The people of Iron City have mostly allowed themselves to be transformed with any available tech. Some are pretty slick, like Ed Skrein's Mohawk-sporting hunter, while others are bulky and grotesque such as Jackie Earle Haley's behemoth. We're also introduced to Alita's first love interest, a charming rogue named Hugo (Keean Johnson), who has secrets of his own that could prove deadly.
… Thankfully, The Odd World Of 'Alita' Is A Sight To See
The production design is sharply and emblematically detailed, and Rodriguez highlights it with a welcome graphic clarity. (For instance, the futurism of "Alita" is far more substantial, and less doctrinaire, than the world-building of Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One.") The byways of Iron City are as inviting to view as they're alluring to its protagonist, and one of the movie's delights is its fusion of Alita's discovery of the city with her efforts to discover herself.
The script is still somewhat unwieldy, chock full of explanations about how robotic bodies work and the history of the decaying setting known as Iron City. Yet, underneath multiple levels of plot and world-building, there's a weirdo heart keeping the action moving along.
Rodriguez is more focused on show than he is on story, as Alita: Battle Angel hits every required beat in an arc of self-discovery — including a slightly bizarre take on puberty as it applies to robots — with the kind of force (or lack thereof) that recalls a kid finishing their homework before being allowed to play video games.
Underneath The Big-Eyed CGI Makeover, Rosa Salazar Gives An Excellent Performance As Alita
Alita grows from a charming and innocent teenager into the strongest weapon known to humankind in the span of two hours, and Salazar brilliantly navigates the character's emotional journey.
She's stoked on life on Earth; everything — especially anything having to do with conflict or Iron City's countless blade-limbed, razor-fingered cybernetic bounty hunters — is thrilling and new to her. She's Jason Bourne crossed with the Little Mermaid.
Salazar, whose human form most recently materialized in "Bird Box" and the English-language remake of "The Kindergarten Teacher," has graduated from supporting act to leading lady with grace and grit. Her motion-capture performance is one of the most impressive we've seen this side of Andy Serkis, with a physicality that's enhanced by digital trickery but a spirit that's all her.
The Rest Of The Cast Doesn't Fare Quite As Well
Ido [Christoph Waltz] is mainly there to inform Alita of everything she needs to know for her next mission, while reminding her how she's not supposed to do the thing she's clearly going to do. The actor tries his best—there's a moment with an orange that's pretty cute—but he's not given much to work with. Ido's ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and her boss Vector (Mahershala Ali) fare even worse, shifting around like grains of sand wherever the plot needs them. It feels like a waste of two talented actors.
The cliché game plot isn't helped by the film's cartoonishly evil villains. Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, Ido's haughty, morally compromised ex and fellow cybersurgeon. She stands out from the grittier denizens of Iron City, with her fine clothes and a forehead gem which looks distractingly like a BIM mark from the trash classic The Apple. Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), the hulking murderous cyborg hunting Alita for much of the film, at one point literally kills a dog just to show how irredeemably evil he is. Moonlight's Mahershala Ali fares a bit better, by virtue of a plot quirk that has him alternately playing sports mogul Vector, and Zalem's maniacal ruler Nova. But his acting talents are largely wasted on the clunky script, written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis.
Don't Expect To Love The Movie's Love Story
Yes, there's a love story, and it's dumb and pointless. Right after waking up at the start of the movie in her new body, Alita has a meet-cute with Hugo (Keean Johnson), a scrap worker with a secret. Even though he starts out as her chummy buddy with a bit of sexual tension, the movie decides halfway through to make him the most important part of Alita's life.
If a loaf of Wonderbread could write love scenes, they'd might sound like the cloying flirtations between these two teens.
Rodriguez Directs The Wild CGI Action With A+ Clarity…
The movie's action is phenomenal, especially in 3D, where the motorball matches and fight scenes send balls and all manner of vicious weapons at viewers. Director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids, Sin City) does excellent work with the CGI-dominated battles, bringing the film's anime and cyberpunk aesthetics to life, and taking advantage of the impossible feats cyborgs can perform.
The battles are unrestrained and eye-popping, looking more like an episode of Dragonball Z than the live-action movie ever did. While the idea of Motorball feels like relic from the Rollerball days, the sequences are fast, exciting, and very violent. I would go so far to say they're too violent for kids, no matter what the age rating on the film may be.
Motorball sequences are some of the best animated race sequences since Speed Racer, yet darker and much more dangerous. The action is fast, yet the camerawork is precise enough that your eye never loses track of what's going on.
… But For Better Or Worse, It Also Feels Like A James Cameron Movie
Though he's only a producer and writer here, Cameron nearly drowns out Rodriguez's directorial voice in the process of transposing the motion-capture technology he deployed so well in his last film (Avatar) onto this future-punk extravaganza.
Cameron's sensibility wins, hands down. Not only does Rodriguez give up most of the fun, but Cameron also runs away with the substance. And that's all the more unfortunate, as the two are evenly matched early on in the film and the outcome of their efforts appears, at first, promising. In an interview in the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, Rodriguez says that he "wanted the movie to be more like a James Cameron film than a Robert Rodriguez film." He got his wish, alas.
For Everything 'Alita' Gets Right, It Fights Uphill Against Development Cruft And The Pitfalls Of Manga Adaptation
Even those moments when the movie rouses itself to cinematic vigor are followed by padding and recycling. Cameron has been trying to get Alita's story on screen for two decades. No wonder it feels wobbly and worked-over. Back then it might have played like gangbusters. But now, after a deluge of comic book epics and other CGI-filled sci-fi fantasies, the movie feels like it's way past its sell-by date.
In the past few years, we've seen a lot of live-action anime adaptations that have tried to translate the sheer weirdness of those stories onto a movie screen, and not many of them have succeeded. Two years ago, at around this same time, Scarlett Johansson's Ghost in the Shell crashed and burned due to an irresponsibly conceived story that put into stark relief the whitewashing of its main character. You could accuse Alita: Battle Angel of the same thing (none of the core cast of this anime adaptation is Asian), which is the more serious of two problems I have with it. The other is that the love interest, Hugo, played by the hapless Keean Johnson, is a real stick in the mud, woodenly delivering his end of touching exchanges with Alita.
Rather than explore complex issues and troubling experiences by way of sci-fi future-historical fantasy, "Alita: Battle Angel" debases them—and its exemplary character—under the force of a blinkered and reactionary model of drama and business alike.
The scale of Alita's ambition is matched only by its joie de vivre; it's as if every ramshackle contraption in Iron City is powered by energetic silliness alone. We may never get an Alita sequel, but the next time Hollywood tries to mount an outrageous sci-fi spectacle like this one, I'll be there to hold up my cybertorch.
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