Writer/producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez brings the manga series to the big screen with Alita: Battle Angel. It is the year 2563 and an event known as “The Fall” has left Earth devastated, save for the wealthy sky city of Zalem, which floats above the desolate Iron City. While savaging parts is a scrapyard, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the still-living core of a cyborg, whom he rebuilds and names Alita (Rosa Salazar). While trying to remember her past life, Alita befriends Hugo (Keean Johnson) and is introduced to the sport of Motorball, run by shady entrepreneur Vector (Mahershala Ali) and Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly). After encountering a hulking assassin named Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), Alita feels compelling need to fight back.
James Cameron was developing a film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga series “Gunnm,” aka as Battle Angel Alita, since at least 2000, with the manga also playing an influence on Cameron’s TV series Dark Angel. However, eventually Alita: Battle Angel would be shelved, as James Cameron moved on to make Avatar and its upcoming sequels. When it became apparent that James Cameron couldn’t direct the film himself, the directorial duties were passed on to Robert Rodriguez, who made adjustments to Cameron’s script, to the allow the story to fit in a two hour running time.
Alita: Battle Angel arrives two years after the highly controversial live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, which was the subject of accusations of whitewashing. While, I can confidently say that Alita: Battle Angel is probably a better adaptation than Ghost in the Shell, the decision to literally mimic Alita’s appearance in the manga, particularly the large eyes, does become a bit of a distraction in the film. Also, the film suffers a bit from poor gender representation, with Alita being motivated by her growing love for Hugo and the character of Chiren being portrayed as extremely bitter, as the result of the death of her and Ido’s daughter.
Despite the film’s problems, Alita: Battle Angel is an exceptionally well-crafted sci-fi action film, featuring some very well done photo-realistic CGI for the cyborg characters, including Alita herself, played by relative newcomer Rosa Salazar (American Horror Story). The story of the film establishes this dystopian world, where the population of Iron City dream of someday being able to go up to Zalem, which is run by the mysterious Nova (briefly portrayed in the film by a well-known actor in an unaccredited cameo). Alita quickly discovers that Ido moonlights as a Hunter-Warrior, a group of bounty hunters that also include the egotistical Zapan (Ed Skrein). The main form of entertainment is the extreme sport of Motorball, which is quite reminiscent of the titular sport of the 1975 film Rollerball (and its 2002 remake).
As essentially surrogate director for James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez doesn’t really get to add too many personal touches to Alita: Battle Angel, save for a few cameos by regular collaborators Jeff Fahey and Michelle Rodriguez. However, the film does show that Rodriguez is able to handle large scale blockbusters, with Alita having the largest budget ever for the filmmaker. Alita: Battle Angel also allow Rodriguez to bounce back a bit, after the lukewarm response to his Machete and Sin City sequels, which resulted in a five year hiatus from filmmaking, with the exception of the From Dusk til Dawn TV series.
While you can’t ignore the problems Alita: Battle Angel has in regards to white-washing a Japanese manga and falling into various gender stereotypes, as a piece of popcorn entertainment, the film is quite enjoyable.