By all accounts, adapting an anime or manga into a live-action blockbuster is a Sisyphean task, at least when it comes to Western media. Death Note, Ghost in the Shell, Dragonball Evolution — the list of flops goes on.
A part of that failure to launch could be attributed to the fact that there’s no way to smoothly translate the anime/manga aesthetic from page (or animation) to screen. The first footage from Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Battle Angel Alita, seemed to suggest that Rodriguez and writer-producer James Cameron tried to solve the problem by being as literal as possible. Actress Rosa Salazar’s eyes were enlarged to the size of dinner plates, looking a little more Gollum-like than presumably intended.
I’ll settle the big questions about Alita: Battle Angel first: Yes, the big eyes are not easy on the, er, eyes (in fact, they are now even bigger). No, they did not need to be that big. But yes, I still love them.
Absolutely everything about Alita: Battle Angel is unapologetically outsized — there is interplanetary war, there is a sport called “motorball” that’s basically jai alai with robots, there are slo-mo shots of objects of varying degrees of deadliness flying out of the screen — and it’s delightful.
The instant that the 20th Century Fox logo abruptly becomes a haggard “26th Century Fox” to signal the passage of time sets the tone for everything that comes next. Rodriguez is more focused on show than he is on story, as Alita: Battle Angel hits every required beat in an arc of self-discovery — including a slightly bizarre take on puberty as it applies to robots — with the kind of force (or lack thereof) that recalls a kid finishing their homework before being allowed to play video games.
In this instance, the video game equivalent is letting Alita (Salazar) cut loose. After being found on a scrap heap, cyborg Alita is reconstructed by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), and wakes without any memory of her past life. Bit by bit, she acclimates to living in Iron City, a metropolis populated by scavengers and survivors (think Mos Eisley and multiply that by 100), learning that she’s not meant to eat orange peels and nursing a crush on the simultaneously appealing and eminently forgettable Hugo (Keean Johnson). Though it’s fun — Salazar gives the usual “baby robot” schtick her very all — it’s peanuts compared to the moment when Alita’s true purpose comes to light.
As implied by the title of the film (and to only slightly paraphrase an actual line), Alita’s built for battle, and watching Salazar hand a bunch of grown men their asses is a thrill. Rodriguez seems to be one of the only directors working who has figured out how to coherently stage a blockbuster action sequence; Alita: Battle Angel is a whirlpool of CGI, and yet every character and action is easy to track instead of disappearing into a mishmash of shapes and similar colors. It’d be easy to ascribe that to the fact that motorball, given its finite number of players and clean course, naturally lends itself to a more easily comprehensible shoot, but even when Alita bursts past the bounds of the motorball course, the film remains crisp.
That the story isn’t particularly interesting is occasionally a drag, but, again, that’s not the point here. Sure, each character only gets one defining characteristic (Alita loves to fight, Ido loves to be a dad, Hugo loves Alita, etc.), but it’s enough. Alita: Battle Angel is pure visual spectacle; it’s not trying to be anything more than it is.
As should be expected from any project even remotely in the vicinity of Cameron, Alita looks incredible. Iron City — and Zalem, the aerial city and mecca that floats above it — is packed to the gills with life. The other characters, for being emotionally flat, are still colorful enough to make an impact: Waltz spends most of the film decked out in an L.L. Bean catalog and carrying a giant rocket hammer; Hugo is repeatedly referred to as “Meat Boy” (on account of being human); and Jackie Earle Haley crops up in the film’s rogues’ gallery in a rig that sizes up his frame to match his charisma, as does Jeff Fahey in a cameo that must in some way have been inspired by Dog the Bounty Hunter.
Alita: Battle Angel sheds (or ignores?) any need for coherence anywhere except in what’s projected up on the screen, and actually benefits from that commitment to action. As Alita’s circumstances grow more dire, so do the consequences, pushing the limits of the film’s PG-13 rating about as far as they’ll go. The sight of the gargantuan cities is juxtaposed with individual violence as limbs are ripped from bodies, and the faster the blood gets pumping, the more galvanizing are the heights to which Alita climbs.
Alita: Battle Angel hits theaters on Feb. 14.