Two of my favorite pastimes, anime and film, rarely meet in the form of productions. Sure, every forum or server I have ever been a part of inevitably makes comparisons between the two, but those wires typically remain uncrossed. Audiences received a little bit of a tease in 2017 with the prospect of a Ghost in the Shell movie that ultimately fell flat. In my own opinion, I found the film to be overly ambitious and not in full control of everything it was doing, spiraling the whole product into a mess. This disappointment led me to have a lukewarm reception to the news of Alita: Battle Angel. I’m incredibly humbled to be able to do an AniTAY Review of this film and I want to try to keep my film analysis within the lanes of evaluating the heart and soul of this, so I apologize if it seems like I might be a little bit tangential at times.
Regardless, I went to go see this film very recently and have a lot of thoughts to unpack about it as a adaptation, a film, and a product in the movie business. These three factors really intertwined in a way that makes discussing Alita difficult to do without perspective to all of the parts. I shall preface this by saying that I have not seen the anime Battle Angel Alita nor have I read the manga Gunnm so I won’t dare try to dissect that part of it as an adaptation, but rather how the film carried itself being adapted from manga/anime. I went ahead and did some quick research after watching the film to get an idea of what was adapted and what was not just for the sake of knowing, but it doesn’t sway my opinion. Headlines will likely say “this is the best manga to the big screen ever” and they are completely warranted. This medium has been one that is as rich in content (if not more) than the comic books that have been generating billions of dollars, and it is incredible to think it has taken this long for studios to start trying to take swings at adapting from it.
Without much of a baseline to compare Alita to, I anticipated that it would be difficult to say just how well the manga/anime style works as a film without relying on a straight eye test. Thankfully, the style here is something that is impressive without being an overload on the senses. Where Ghost in the Shell felt like it was trying too hard to make things too artsy and topping the source material to seem smart and savvy until it ended up getting lost in a mess, Altia really felt comfortable with using creativity to tell a story that was already there for it. CGI is used really tastefully and scenes are as fluent and impressive as they are steady. My gut fears with live action CGI find themselves in every few comic book hero movies and Michael Bay’s Transformers films where the action is too fast and/or hollow. I held my breath during the scenes with Battle Angel’s sport, a high speed spectacle called Motorball for this very reason. The CGI during these scenes in particular showed a huge amount of care that went into keeping everything from becoming a normal loud mess. These decisions certainly make for good action movies, but for the sake of staying around, anime/manga adapted films need to be able to show their depth in storytelling-something that Alita understands and executes well.
Visuals aside, this movie works well as a film on its own. I know this is the AniTAY review, but like I was saying earlier, it is important to hit a few points from it as a movie. Legendary filmmaker James Cameron had been known to be interested in working on
something not called Avatar a film adaptation of Gunnm for an incredibly long time. It really sets the table for more filmmakers to champion for adaptations of their favorite stories from our beloved medium. While I do not think directors are incapable of matching the visions of someone who wants to construct a live action manga essentially, it takes a certain level of risk taking and boldness from a creative mind to be in on it. Bold and risk taking happens to be the modus operandi of director Robert Rodriguez (everything from Sin City and Machete to Spy Kids and everyone’s favorite Shark Boy & Lava Girl) who probably showed up to James Cameron’s house the minute something like Alita was pitched.
The acting between Alita, played by Rosa Salazar (Brenda in the Maze Runner films) and Dr. Ido, played by Christoph Waltz (Academy Award and Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor in both Inglorious Basterds and Django: Unchained), can carry this film far on its own. If you strip away the visuals that make this film really fun, there is still a pretty entertaining drama going on with two really well acted roles, which gives a lot more than some straight-up drama films can even say. Waltz in particular takes a role that could be easily forgettable and pedestrian and gives some real subtle emotion to his role that makes the audience really feel the conflict of his character and the amount of care he has for Alita.
So with the visuals and acting considered, I want to say that these two things alone can bring a promising future for more of this story and other manga/adaptations but there is an inevitable gamble that is taken towards the third act of the film that dampers my mood on the overall product as well as fear the future. Battle Angel really bets on itself and does not just leave the door open for a sequel- it pines for it. Hard. What feels like a pretty well contained story nosedives into a bet on returning that will look graceful if we ever get a sequel. Obviously, there is concern for this though, as any big budget film runs the risk of not getting a return on investment that will be enough to warrant an encore. It is the kind of decision that only makes sense since it is only a few volumes of a larger story, but I cannot help but feel like there might have been a less aggressive way to keep things open for a sequel.
Furthermore, watching the conclusion of this film made me think of films with really impressive visuals that flopped hard like Pete Travis’ 2012 Dredd adaptation that would have really hit its stride in a sequel due to how it ended. There is an interesting discussion to be had using Dredd as a forecast for how Alita may fare. Karl Urban (who played the titular Dredd) himself stated that he felt that the film was not marketed well enough for success despite being a sort of cult movie on home media. There are two things that take a play at this story in the case of Alita: a good news, bad news sort of situation.
The good news is that Alita has been advertised as aggressively as it sets itself up for a sequel. As a sports fan, I have yet to watch a broadcast without at least one commercial for it or some promo spot that has whatever channel’s anchors doing something related to Motorball. My mother asks me about the film almost every other day, meaning there must be enough ads running on her evening television as well. With that said, things look good for Alita.
Now for the bad news: Alita comes out at what might be arguably the single worst weekend for a film like it- Valentine’s Day weekend. US theaters are going to be packed with couples out to see Isn’t It Romantic starring Rebel Wilson and Happy Death Day 2U (which is a film that has been pushed on advertisements even harder than Alita was). To make matters worse, The LEGO Movie 2 still looms around for all of those families looking to go see a film together since most children will have Presidents’ Day off from school.
An incredibly optimistic outlook would say that this film was picked for this weekend as counterprogramming. Another factor that could work in favor is an adaptation of a manga/anime stands well for an international market. For reference, Ghost in the Shell only made $40,563,557 domestically and a whopping $129,238,364 internationally. The number to watch for Alita will be $200,000,000. That is considerably more than Ghost in the Shell had at $110,000,000 but here is hoping the gamble pays off. I know the numbers are dizzying to consider, but when a film really gambles on sustained success, it risks looking really bad with a unfinished “finale” without a sequel.
TL;DR: Alita: Battle Angel is a film crafted with passion from a visionary of modern American cinema in James Cameron (
and Robert Rodriguez). The adaptation of a classic manga is made with acuity that should leave fans and non-fan thrill seekers alike incredibly satisfied. The visuals ring in a new standard for CGI and give audiences what they want along with some superb acting from the primary cast that is as wonderful as it is unexpected. While it does not quite stick a steady landing after going on a breathtaking first two acts, Alita is something to be appreciated by all who love films that take risks and those who have visions of potentially seeing more manga/anime works adapted to US big screens one day.
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