In my experience, it is bad to adapt anime into live-action films. You either end up with dumpster fires like “Dragonball Z,” or they are passable as with the first “Deathnote” movie. Live-action isn’t friendly to animation, and that runs true in the United States, too. I didn’t think “Beauty and Beast” was good, and I’ve not been a fan of Disney adapting more animation in the same way. Animation has a freedom of form that you don’t get in CGI, or human actors, and that is true here. So the question I ask is, “why did this work for me?” It works because they delved into the lore where the initial anime didn’t. I can see why this was in development hell for a long time, and this time it was worth it.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is a cyberpunk dystopian action film that was adapted from the manga by Yukito Kishiro.The film was directed by Robert Rodriguez (an action director I’m a fan of), and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. James Cameron was also a producer, and you can see his care with CGI in this.
Alita is a cyborg seeking to discover her. Her adopted father, Ido, brings her back to “life” upon finding her in the wastes below the last sky city of Zalem years after The Fall, a war that devastated Earth 300 years prior. From here she must face multiple threats as she protects the people she loves.
The Soundtrack – Tom Holkenborg does a wonderful job honoring the original anime’s soundtrack. You can hear the “Blade Runner” inspiration, while it also manages to develop a voice and feel of its own. The music captures the sci. fi. epic past, as well as the present desperation of the characters.
The World – The anime touches on a rich world that the live-action film explores more extensively. There are hundreds of years of history. We learn about the war with the Sky Cities, and how Zalem became the last one. We learn about a cyborg military force from Mars, and how they nearly succeed before being defeated. We see the wastes where there is a gladiatorial competition of motorball where the winner of the tournament is rewarded by going to Zalem. I loved this world. It made me want to read the manga, and learn more. I hope this film gets sequels, so they can further explore it.
The Action – The action is amazing. This is a film where you feel every punch. For example, there is a villain who Alita easily beats while defending Ido. He returns later, and it takes all she has to beat him. She loses so much of her cyborg body but fights on. I was never bored during this film. I even thought motorball was handled well, given how they presented the action with so much color, movement and increasing stakes as players tried to kill her. The action is truly one of the most memorable parts of the film.
Ido – Christoph Waltz is wonderful as Ido. He is a scientist, and Hunter-Warrior, exiled from Zalem with his wife, whom his relationship with ended after their daughter was killed. We see him wanting that second chance in Alita as he gives her his daughter’s name. Their arc is him treating her as her own person, and respecting just how powerful she is. She is the protector and he is the “father.” He reactivated her and gave her the cyborg body he was going to give his real daughter. Through a set of Berserker Armor he Ido gives Alita, she discovers her past as a soldier for the United Republics of Mars (URM). Waltz is an award winning actor for a reason and this film is a great example of why.
Alita – Rosa Salazar does a fantastic job as Alita. She is a woman seeking out her past, and also discovering her own humanity as a sentient android. We see her fall in love with and save Hugo, only to later lose him. We see her relationship with her “father” Ido become one of partnership, and family, rather than her being treated like a child. We see her discover what it means to fight the greater fight, as losing Hugo reminds her of the larger fight against Zalem and the man behind the scenes Nova. Nova has been the one manipulating Vector, Ido’s ex-wife Dr. Chiren, and taking all the remains of humans he finds worthy below. You can see why Alita wants to end him, and when she discovers where her fight truly is, it is empowering and also sets up possible sequels.
Implications of the War – From what we can tell the URM lost the war and Earth stayed oppressed by Nova and Zalem. The world of “Alita: Battle Angel” is broken, and the desperation of people makes it so sociopaths like Nova can easily manipulate them into tools he can use to strengthen his city. The war ended but the fact that Alita survives implies that the old way may return, especially if she becomes a uniter of the people below Zalem.
Minor Characters – Hugo, Vector, Dr. Chiren and a few others are fine. In the case of Vector, they end up often being possessed by Nova, so we never really learn who Vector is. Dr. Chiren has some good moments with Ido, and her choice to save Hugo is powerful. Ultimately her character underdeveloped. Hugo is okay, I liked him more in the anime because he was a bit more naive. In this film he is more grown up, which makes what he does as a mercenary all the more revolting. He does leave, and it costs him his life, but I felt he needed more development. I didn’t care about him nearly as much as I did Dr. Chiren.
The Promise of Nova – Nova is a powerful force and we know how oppressive Zalem is but we never learn who Nova is. I put him as okay because the mystery gives potential for a compelling backstory, and he could become much more of a threat than he is in this. Edward Norton is extremely talented and plays Nova. There was some missed opportunity in his role. He is a good enough constant threat in the film, and I like that he’s been around since the war with URM. Hopefully his story pays off in sequels.
For any fans of anime or post-apocalyptic cyberpunk sci. fi., this is a film worth checking out. I’ve been wanting to see a solidly good anime adapted to film for some time, and it looks like this time they managed to do it. The acting is solid, the action is great, the story is compelling and it is true to the anime while expanding on it and enriching the world. This film is a great example of adaptation done right.
Final Score: 8.4 / 10