There is a reason why every announcement of a Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese manga or anime is usually met with a groan of despair from fans of said property – there just aren’t many of those that are actually good.
Case in point, 2017’s Ghost In The Shell, starring Scarlet Johansson, a hollow shell of a movie that was more memorable for the controversy over the Asian-washing of its Japanese lead character than the actual movie itself.
Other disappointing attempts inclue Dragonball Evolution (urgh), and the recent Death Note TV show. It’s enough to make you fear for other planned live-action adaptations like Akira, Robotech and Mobile Suit Gundam.
If these projects do get the green light from the studios, the least the producers of those films could do is to watch Alita: Battle Angel and take some notes on how to make a decent live-action adaptation of a Japanese manga.
Based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm (known as Battle Angel Alita in English), this Robert Rodriguez-directed adaptation is set in a dystopian future caused by a great war called The Fall which was fought 300 years ago.
It stars Rosa Salazar as the titular character, a disembodied cyborg ‘core’ found in the scrap yard of Iron City by cybernetics surgeon Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who restores her to a new body and gives her the name Alita.
With no memory of her life before her reawakening, Alita is a blank slate – everything she sees, tastes and feels is new to her. This innocence doesn’t last long though, as she soon gets mixed up in a dark world of bounty hunters, cyborg murderers and violent competitive sports, and discovers that she is also an expert proponent of an ancient martial art. In other words, she’s actually a real bada$$.
First things first though, let’s address the wide-eyed elephant in the room. Yes, Alita’s ‘anime eyes’ needs some getting used to at first, but it turns out to be the perfect way to portray her initial wide-eyed innocence, while also making her, er, the twinkling eye of the bleak storm that is Iron City and its denizens.
Those eyes, coupled with Salazar’s performance (done through motion capture), makes for a genuinely likeable and sympathetic lead character, big eyes and all. Guess there’s some soul in this shell after all.
Co-producer James Cameron had previously said that the movie is based on the story ‘spine’ of manga’s first four volumes.
For the most part, Alita does stay true to the manga, even reverting to the original Japanese name of the floating city of Zalem (it was known as Tiphares in Western translations of the series).
Supporting characters like love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson), villain Vector (Mahershala Ali) are all there, and most of the scenes and lines in the movie were lifted directly from the comic.
It’s one thing to stay faithful to the source material, but quite another to do it justice. happily, Alita manages to do both.
The action sequences are undoubtedly the highlight here – from the fight with the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) to the stunning Motorball sequences, the combination of visual wizardry and visceral action makes for a genuinely exciting ride.
There are parts where I wish Rodriguez hadn’t stayed so true to the manga though, specifically with Alita’s relationship with Hugo, but since it is such an important part in her development as a character as well as the manga, I suppose that was unavoidable.
All in all, Hollywood seems to have managed a decent live-action adaptation of a manga for once – Alita is an action-packed film that will entertain casual movie-goers while keeping fans of the source material happy.
Just try not to stare too deeply into those eyes…
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Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Keean Johnson.