Battle Angel Alita did for cyberpunk what Berserk did for fantasy after it was published in 1990. While it had limited success and an OVA in its home country, like everything 90s and Japanese, the manga gained a rather large following in the US. Through director Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron learned of Alita and set about making his own live action adaptation in 2000. Cameron’s short-lived TV show Dark Angel drew inspiration from the manga, vowing to start production after the show was cancelled in 2002. 15 years later we finally got a trailer and after another delay Alita: Battle Angel was finally released.
Where I am an Effects Nazi that can spot blatant mistakes a mile away, Cameron is an Effects Fuhrer. While Robert Rodriguez sat in the director’s chair, the visual effects in Battle Angel were definitely all Cameron. The man is utterly ambitious when it comes to effects work. Since his early days with Terminator he as pushed the bounds of what is possible on screen, mixing mediums, and making advancements we take for granted. Our use of 3D filmmaking and performance capture would not have been possible until Cameron perfected it in Avatar. He is like Robert Zemeckis without his head permanently affixed up his own asshole.
To that end, it is rare for Cameron to make a movie and not try to innovate. Avatar was nine years ago and 12 years before that was Titanic. For a working director that is not normal, but I would not consider Cameron a working director. The man is a perfectionist and an inventor that will not direct unless he can try something new and different. At the same time, how he approaches new projects depends on the material in question. Avatar had ideas and concepts that would have look awful when it was first conceived and Cameron shelved it until the technology caught up.
Having read the manga it is very clear why Battle Angel took 19 years to make. The character Alita is just a head and the other 90% mechanical with anime-eyes and a small mouth. On the one had, you could use prosthetics to make the actress look like a robot from the neck down. However, latex is not solid and any movements will wrinkle the material. Maybe you could cover her up to hide it, but it would not look good on screen or accurate to the manga. Then there are other cyborg characters with diverse appearances that require the same treatment.
The final product is flawless to say the least. If you are expecting photo-realism, give it another decade or two, but what Battle Angel achieves is a level of quality to rival the MCU. The animation and textures of the cyborg characters is realistic enough that it just works on screen. Movements are fluid and very easy to follow when things get very fast during action sequences. Between action, the cyborgs and general VFX elements look great. Alita and a minor villain named Zapan standout the most, but they blend in so well. The backgrounds and some of the props also fit the overall presentation without looking too fake.
On the practical front the production quality was superb. There are more real sets than computer generator from what I could see. The setting of Iron City comes alive at the street level with anachronistic architecture, stonework, and an Arabic bazaar look touched up with cyborgs of all shapes and sizes. Battle Angel is totally loyal to the aesthetic of the manga with the exception of a lack of clutter and squalor. Iron City, or Scrapyard as it was called in the books, was built under the waste pipe of a floating city. That waste became the city’s treasure and resource for everything, which is why furniture, gadgets, and such are made of scrap. The movie retains some of the look from the manga, but not enough to really standout.
Another aspect of note is the tone. Rodriguez always applies an air of levity to his work, even when dealing with relatively serious subject matter. You can tell he meant for Battle Angel to be an adventure of Alita discovering who she was and figuring out who she wants to be. She is intensely naïve and the biggest chunk of the film is spent finding her own way and coming to understand how complicated people can be. When things get very serious, Alita has more or less matured at the same time. That levity at the beginning was a perfect set-up because we could feel what Alita was feeling after waking up in a new body and no memory. It also helps that Rosa Salazar was the perfect casting choice.
As for the action, to elaborate on my previous statement, get ready to have fun. Combat is based entirely in melee because guns are forbidden in the film’s setting. Alita was always partly a kung-fu story with graceful and elaborate choreography in manga form. This comes through very well on screen with a handful of fantastic fight scenes and the story’s emphasis on Alita’s hand-to-hand prowess. One sequence involved a sport called motorball that could be a major plot point in a sequel. That being said, sometimes the choreography is stilted, where the actors hesitate like they are expecting a cut or waiting for their costar to make their move. When the fights are fully animated it looks fine because the motions are perfectly timed. Christoph Waltz, for example, is so awkward trying to swing around a giant rocket-sledge.
Another issue is how Battle Angel conveys information. Alita is a great audience surrogate who needs everything explained to her, but it never comes naturally. There is always an instance where characters outright tell her exposition like they are tour guides. Granted, this happens more than once in the manga, but the great thing about film is you do not have to say anything to convey information. What works in one medium fails in another. This does not just happen with Alita, but other characters talk to each other like they are also amnesiac newcomers.
This issue is tied to the film’s best quality in terms of adaptation. Battle Angel takes the first three volumes of the manga, and combines them in much the same way as the OVA back in 1993. There are also additional story elements that set-up future installments like motorball and the series’ main villain. Unlike 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel mixes its inspirations in a fluid blend that does not hurt pacing, and retains the substance of the source material. That being said, those first three volumes of the manga were packed to brim is mountains of information that the film struggled to convey. For fans like myself, I could not be more pleased. For moviegoers, you will find the excess information and how it is dished out hard to digest.
That last sentence epitomizes how I would recommend Alita: Battle Angel. If you are a fan or someone that has been waiting for a great anime movie adaptation, this is the best you are ever going to get. For everyone else, if you like superhero films and want something different, this is for you. Battle Angel is a fun little experience with a nice story about growing up. The mound of exposition is awkward, but it does not take away from the overall presentation. I recommend giving Battle Angel your attention because how many movies spend 19 years in development and come out this good?