Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

You have to admit that the names alone are enough to get you in the door: James Cameron’s pet project which he wrote and produced, but which was directed by Robert Rodriguez?

It definitely gets your attention.

Now it seems somewhat odd that Cameron would pick a lesser known Japanese Manga and Anime to adapt, although Battle Angel (aka, Gunnm) has its share of admirers.  However, it is hard to miss that there was more than a hint of Anime influence in Cameron’s Avatar.  

As in so many Manga, the story this film tells us is surprisingly dark — and it is hard to miss that Alita’s personal story is as far removed from the no-cost heroics we’ve seen in far too many recent Feminist films as you can get in the theater these days.

But then, that was always true of Cameron’s ladies, whether Ripley, or Sarah Connor, or Lindsey Brigham, or Max Guevera (okay, not so much what’s-her-name from Titanic.  But that hardly counts).

Those who’ve seen a lot of a Anime will find this a very familiar sort of story:  Doctor Ido, who runs a clinic for cyborgs, finds the core of a full-body cyborg in the trash heap at the center of Iron City.  She obviously fell from Zalem, the mysterious city that hangs in the sky above, is still alive and has the brain of a teen-aged girl.

Unfortunately, when he rebuilds her, she has no memory of who she is or where she came from — but it soon becomes obvious that she is not just any cyborg…

I’ll confess I would never have guessed from all the cyborg action in the trailers that much of the film is about Alita and the constant surprises and discoveries of life in her new home.  However, the action scenes are there and are spectacular!

Nor am I surprised by the divide between the critics — who have been cold towards the film, if not openly hostile — and the public, who love it.  After all, this sort of complex, Anime style SF story is far different from the routine storytelling conventions of mainstream films.  It certainly isn’t what staid, middle-aged film critics are used to.  One suspects that some of them just blank out when they hear any SF concept — whether cyborgs or radically stratified societies — and instead end up thinking about what dress Sandra Bullock is going to wear to the Oscars this year.  Or whether to go buy another big tub of popcorn.  Or, if it were a little brighter in here, I could balance my checkbook…

Ironically, one of the biggest complaints critics have made about this film has been that the story doesn’t make sense.  Now Robert Rodriguez did have a major challenge on his hands, trimming Cameron’s overblown script into something more workable.  However, what I found was a massive, sprawling, complex film whose pieces all fit together reasonably well once we learn the full story — which is often the case in the longer Manga series.  Again, those complaints may have a lot to do with the fact that most critics aren’t rated M for manga.  I’ve seen enough Anime films that I’m comfortable with their conventions — even when it’s an eccentric Texan who’s following them.

Which leads us to those huge Manga eyes.

You can’t miss them — they’re in all the trailers and on the posters.  Let’s face it, when I first saw the trailers I thought they were just creepy.  Super creepy.  Depths of the Unreal Valley creepy.

James Cameron insisted on them.  It does seem like an excessive literalism towards something I’ve always seen as a stylized flourish.  But I have to admit they do work.  You never lose sight of the fact that Alita’s  face is an effect, but it is so expressive, so human, and yes, so appealing, that one accepts it as the face of an essentially artificial being.  It struck me when I saw a side by side comparison of the final effect and the raw motion capture footage that Alita is actually more attractive than her human counterpart, Rosa Salazar.  Rosa has a rather long jaw and wide mouth, both of which have been minimized (something I suspect few viewers noticed, and which was probably just a side effect of creating those huge eyes!).

Another curious detail is that, although the original Manga had a quite different storyline than the Anime OVA, from the summaries I’ve seen — and my rather dim memories of seeing the OVA several years ago — this film seems to have followed the Anime rather than the Manga.

Which seems a curious choice to me.

And perhaps this leads to what I suspect may be the largest complaint people will make about this film:  it doesn’t complete the story.  In fact, it only adapts (roughly) the first volume of three.  Cameron once planned to make three Alita films before he decided to put all his efforts into making Avatars 2 through 5.  Whether Rodriguez will go on to make more of these is hard to say, but it definitely won’t happen if 20th Century Fox doesn’t make their investment back.

And who knows how its sale to Disney will affect things.

Rodriguez attracted a reasonably impressive cast, with Christoph Waltz and Jennifer Connelly in major roles, Jeff Fahey and Jackie Earle Haley as cyborgs, and Michelle Rodriguez and Edward Norton in fairly large unbilled parts (who are both likely to have more to do in any sequels)

One odd detail does intrigue me:  in the OVA (and in some versions of the Manga, I believe), Alita is called “Gally.”  I have no idea what prompted the change.  I do have a sneaking suspecion, though, that “Gally” is probably taken from the Greek myth of Galatea, the statue Pygmalion created that was so realistic that it actually came to life.  If you drop the “G” from Galatea, that does end up fairly close to Alita, so it may just be a question of how the Katakana got transliterated.  

Or to quote the old Italian proverb, “Translator, Traitor.”

Unfortunately, I don’t remember the original Italian phrase…

This is a bold and innovative film — and one that is far more interested in entertaining its audience than pleasing the critics.  It does come to a moderately dark– if still hopeful — ending, and I’m not sure whether its audience will accept the fact that there is still more of the story left untold.

But, if they can, then they’re in for a wild ride — mostly on cyborg in-line skates.

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