Alita: Battle Angel (2019) – True to the Anime in a Rich World

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.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

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.

Okay:

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

Top 5 Ways I’d Fix the Film “Death Note” (2017)

       It has been a while since I’ve watched such a terrible film that rather than review it the only things I can think about are the ways it could have been saved, and at least been made passable. The last time I did this was for “Twilight” and this is that level of garbage quality. I’m working on a larger review for the anime of “Death Note” currently as I recently rewatched it and the level of quality holds up. It was one of the first animes I ever saw and it is what made me appreciate how anime can be used to discover deeper philosophical ideas and gives us complex characters. This film has none of that and is a failure on nearly every level with the exception of Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. So that is the 1 / 10 I would have given this film, it is all thanks to a single actor’s performance.

In setting the parameters for how I’d fix this film, I can’t change the casting. L is still black and Light, his father and Misa/Mia are white. I accept this could possibly still work and with this Top 5 I will show 5 ways that could have helped it work. Though with a mess like this, I know that not all of it will be salvageable. I’m here to save what I can and give you a passable film.

5 – Give It a Soundtrack Similar to the Show 

First lets start with the opening theme song, which is metal in theme and gives us the stakes right off the back. We have intensity and drama and the lyrics are meant to capture the revolution that Light wants to bring about with himself as God. It is full of rage and sadness which encapsulates the humans caught up in the drama of the “Death Note.” We also get some dark instrumentals, which capture the dark tone of the characters such as L’s theme, which is methodical and like a heartbeat. This is a show that is so compelling because the music pulls you into the characters’ heads and doesn’t let you out. The fact that it is a crime drama and thriller isn’t lost in the soundtrack that Yoshihisa Horano and Hideki Taniuchi created for the series. This is a soundtrack I will keep coming back to and getting rid of the cheesy 80’s score in the movie and creating a soundtrack pulling from these 2 themes could have helped carry the terrible writing that covered the script of this awful film.

4 – Give Us a Single Protagonist 

This is a film that did not know what it wanted. L and Light have no clear agenda or clear cut philosophy as we see Light ready to abandon his the moment Mia wants to kill his father and we see L abandon his when he is worried about Watari. Because there wasn’t a clear arc there was no clear story. We had 3 main characters – Mia, Light and L…but none of them had a clear agenda or were fleshed out all that well. Mia was a psychopath who just wanted to kill but we see that she loves L, L wanted to bring Light to justice but was ready to go all Kira to save Watari and Light spoke about wanting to bring criminals to justice but never did. If we had been given a clear protagonist this would have been solved. In the show it is easy to flesh out the themes and arcs because Light drives the action and L, the Police, Near or Mello are a reaction to his actions, this keeps the narrative going and in the end, “Death Note” is about Light and exploring the premise of his utopia. This film had no real protagonist and in doing so none of the characters were fleshed out or clearly defined. I couldn’t tell you what any of these characters want and that is due to lack of a clear focus or single driving force for the narrative.

3 – Show Don’t Tell

One of the major problems the show had is it revealed everyone’s role in the plot right off the back. Light reveals he has a Death Note to Mia and brings her in on his game of becoming Kira and L reveals his face to Light and says he knows he is Kira and will bring him to justice. This is all tell and no show. One thing that could have saved this script is if it had taken a note from the show. We should be getting reveals during the climax and when it will make the greatest impact upon our characters. In the show L tells Light he is a suspect but it isn’t until much later that he speaks about certainty he is Kira and Light plays the role of dutiful son. In this Light is a brat and crybaby who pretty much admits to L that he is Kira when they first meet. It is shoddy, crappy storytelling and if the reveals had been held off later so they actually meant something we’d have more time to explore and see who these characters are. That way the reveals give us another dimension. The only reveal that is in this film is that Light was manipulating Mia the entire time…though given she’s presented as the primary antagonist it doesn’t reveal Light to be evil, it just shows he has some level of self-preservation.

2 – Adapt An Arc From the Show

Okay, I can’t change the fact that the leads have been cast and it takes place in Seattle. This will make it difficult given their acting isn’t all that great, but they can still be in an interesting story. Give us an arc from the show. Give us the Yotsuba Arc where the Death Note has passed onto the member or a corporation who is killing off his competition and it is up to Mia, L and Light to work together. They can still debate the ideas of the Death Note and be under suspicion but now we get a thriller and a mystery as we don’t know who holds the Death Note. All we know is one of the leaders in a Corporation has the Death Note…and given this takes place in Seattle they could Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks or countless others to explore it which would give us more nuance and depth and pull us away from the awful teen romance that was the focus of the film this time around. This is only one of the arcs from the show, they could also have Kira’s Cult be explored and Have L in the place of Near and Mello and show the means he has to go to in order to reveal Light as Kira or they could give Mia and Death Note and have her actually act like Misa’s character and have them both under suspicion of L doing the main arc L goes through in the show. That is 3 arcs they could have used right there and they don’t have to change casting or anything, they just have to know the subject matter they are adapting and pull from the great stories that already exist within the show. Any of these could have given us a clear theme versus the listless mess we get with the film.

1 – An Unambiguous Ending 

This is a film that sucks all the way through, from start to finish…it messed up so bad it couldn’t even give us a clear ending. At the end Light is talking to his Dad and he mentions that he realizes he was choosing between 2 evils and his father asks him which one he is. Did they expect a sequel to come out of this? Light or L should be dead and Light should be free showing us that his ends were justified or that he can no walk away and give up the Death Note or with him dead and L finally bringing him and Mia to justice with Ryuk ending it with writing Light’s name in the Death Note. Hell I’d settle for the death of either L or Light because it would give clarity to a film that had none. A good ending can make a bad film okay. This film had a terrible ending and all it had to do to fix it was give us the death of Light or L and with it a clear point on what side was correct.

These are the Top 5 Ways I’d fix this god awful travesty of a film. Again if I was scoring it it would be 1 / 10, so a lot could be done to fix it, and most of these things are basic storytelling ideas. How would you fix this film if you were given the chance? If you had to adapt “Death Note” how would you go about doing so? Curious to hear your thoughts and it is a shame this film wasn’t deleted before Netflix brought it to the small screen.

Ghost in the Shell (2017): True to the World and Ideas of the Anime but a bit Jumbled in Execution

  The new film “Ghost in the Shell” is complicated. I enjoyed it but there were certain things about it that annoyed me, largely tied to how the Major’s story is told and presented. This was film that was on the edge of being really good and possibly even great, but it tried to tie into many things and how they handle and present Major Kusanagi. To give my non-spoiler thoughts as what I mean with the problem of the Major will be spoilerific, is that the world works and feels like the world from the show but combining too many stories from the films and show and failing to give us the Major kept it from being great.

   The film was directed by Rupert Sanders, written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler an Ehren Kruger and produced by Avi and Ari Arad, Steven Paul and Michael Costigan.

   The story involves Major Killian (Scarlett Johansson) and the government organization she is with known as Section 9 hunting down a hacker who is killing people tied to Hanka Robotics. As the Conspiracy unfolds the Major learns the secrets of her past and who she once was.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world if Neo-Tokyo is a really beautiful and diverse cyberpunk world. While in the films and movies the city is largely homogenized with the exception of immigration zones, this one the diversity is one display everywhere. I loved this version of Tokyo and felt it lended power to the film, as it felt like the future. This cyberpunk world has androids, human brains in robotic bodies, spider tanks and the hacking of human minds. It is very much the world of the show in all of it’s glory.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack with Lorne Balfe and it is absolutely stunning. It pulls inspiration from the tv show and films and gives it the epic movie level quality that was needed.

The Special Effects – The special effects are absolutely stunning. This is a beautiful film and it captures the future in a stunning way. Giant holographic adds hang on buildings, the Major going invisible is handled well, the spider tank looks and feels like it is actually present and the Major’s android body feels artificial.

Section 9 – Section 9 is the government organization that deals with threats to Japan both internal and external. They are a diverse organization in this with people from all over the place (like in the show). You don’t really get to know anyone besides this version of the Major, Batou and Chief Arakami but they get some good exploration.

Batou – Batou is the Major’s best friend and second in command. He’s the kind to her hard and we see he will do anything for her (just like in the show). Pilou Asbaek gives a lot of empathy and strength to the role as we see him supporting the Major through her journey and in unraveling the conspiracy.

Chief Arakami – Arakami is amazing! In this film we get to see why he’s the leader of Section 9 and that he is a combat veteran (something you never see in any of the films or shows that I’ve watched so far). He’s protective of the Major and has her back too. Even when Hanka tries to blackmail him he doesn’t budge and throws it right back at them as well as taking out a few of their goons when they ambush him. Takeshi Kitano make not look like how he looks on the show (he’s usually presented as small, in this he’s a little tall and big) but he captures the core of the character beautifully.

Okay: The Major – I don’t consider this character Major Kusanagi. Kusanagi is a character who is always striving to be more and pushing her limits…and that means more than just injuring her robotic body. In this that is the only way she pushes the limits. There isn’t that search and desire for knowledge and truth (outside of her past), which was a shame. Johannson is fine in the role but this isn’t the Major.

The Cons: Lack of Focus on a Past “Ghost in the Shell” Story – At first it looks like they are going to be having the Puppet Master story be key with a rogue A.I. that develops intelligence, than we find out it is a childhood friend and we get the Individual 11 storyline from Season 2 of “Ghost in the Shell,” and we get echoes of early Major…so maybe trying to do own story? I would have preferred they just pick one and focus on it.

Missing the Point of the Major –  I can’t express this enough because this is what bothered me the most…the Major is the philosopher warrior, she is always seeking more and will dive into another’s mind to become more if given the chance. She is willing to risk all to not just learn the truth but to become a higher and better overall. The show had none of that and just made her a superhero who wants to know about her past. She is simplified and in turn I don’t know how anyone can see her as the Major.

Representation and the Major’s Character – They made this Major’s past important they even reveal that she has her Japanese name like in the manga, film and shows…so why not give her a Japanese body or have her choose to have one at the end since she knows who she is now and that her Killian persona is a lie and that the Hanka corporation stole her childhood before making her a weapon. This show rightfully gets criticism for white-washing when this was so easy to avoid, even within what they setup within the story. There is zero reason for her to keep the same body at the end or to have even had it in the first place given Hanka is always a Japanese name. The corporation seems to be run by Mr. Cutter who is European…but he is defeated in the end, so what is preventing her from choosing another shell since her past and present as Kusanagi (She even has a friendship with her Mom Mrs. Kusanagi after she finds her, who is obviously Japanese) so why not follow through?

   This was a film that rightfully got called out for white-washing. The Major learns about her past as Kusanagi and even finds her mother, and though she rejected becoming more we never see her choose another shell rather she keeps the one the corporation used when they turned her into a weapon. Given that her past was so important to her (in the films and show I don’t remember it being as important, it was her desire to be more and transcend, her shell wasn’t important…in this her past makes her shell important) it felt like a major missed opportunity. Fans of the show I’ve talked to still enjoyed the film and actually had less to nitpick than me but for me, besides the jumbling together of a few different stories and missing the core desire of the Major to become more kept it from being good. If you like the show I’m curious to hear your thoughts if you saw the film.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10