Blu-ray Review: Alita: Battle Angel | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, February 23rd, 2020  

Alita: Battle Angel

Studio: Fox Home Entertainment

Aug 26, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Gunnm (or also known as Battle Angel Alita) is a nine-volume cyberpunk manga created by Yukito Kishiro in 1990. The series would run until 1995, and its first two volumes were adapted in 1993 into a two-part anime OVA titled Battle Angel, directed by Hiroshi Fukutomi and Rintaro for Studio Madhouse. Following an amnesiac female cyborg, the original manga crafts its own unique post-apocalyptic setting and society where cybernetics defines the surviving human population, becoming quickly hallmarked by its striking and detailed imagery and immersive world. The anime was noted for its production values and vivid color palette, though it had strong deviations from its source narrative - but no further adaptations, animated or otherwise, followed.

Reportedly, after being introduced to him by Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron registered a domain name in 2000 with the intent on making an Alita film. After developing the movie for nearly twenty years, with numerous changing hands and developmental challenges, Alita: Battle Angel was brought to theaters by 20th Century Fox in 2019, co-written by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, and directed by Robert Rodriguez. The film was produced on a staggering $170 million budget between four separate production companies (20th Century Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment, Troublemaker Studios, TSG Entertainment), and released to lukewarm critical responses and a box office that just allowed them to break even.

Set 300 years after the Earth hosted an apocalyptic interplanetary war known colloquially as The Fall, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a heavily damaged cyborg with an intact human brain in a scrapyard beneath the floating city of Zalem, the epicenter of the sprawling Iron City where he runs a clinic. After Ido attaches a new body to the brain, she activates, and after a brief introduction he names her Alita (Rosa Salazar); the catch, however, is that Alita has absolutely no memory of her past. Not long after Ido begins introducing Alita to the world, they meet Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido’s estranged ex-wife, and Hugo (Keean Johnson), a smarmy street teen, the pair of whom indirectly lead Alita to participating in the popular battle royale racing sport Motorball. While Alita continues to find aspects about her surroundings, and her new favorite sport, to love and explore, she soon discovers the city has a sickly sinister side, which may directly involve everyone in her life, and be the key to her past.

When I had first encountered Kishiro’s manga, it was a fan translation on an otaku website, someone had graciously (and horribly) translated the Japanese characters into broken English, but I was enraptured all the same. So when I first heard that the series was getting a big budget Hollywood adaptation, and Cameron was producing, I was super psyched. When it finally came time for the trailers to drop, I was still hyped up, and could see every element from the manga bleeding through, and believed Rodriguez was a perfect choice - though my breath caught a little when I saw Cameron was the co-writer. I have never considered Cameron to be strong at characterization, his spectacle is his core appeal, and his technical brilliance is perfectly suited to help adapt the work into an epic sci-fi romp, so I was willing to let it slide, also considering how brilliant Kalogridis’ writing was for Altered Carbon.

What we got is a combined narrative and visual assault, both oddly faithful to aspects of the original manga and the anime adaptation, as well as a clear stab at original workmanship - but something went wrong. The film is full of breathtaking vistas, adrenaline-pumping action concepts, and a character dynamic almost too close to Astro Boy for comfort, but these elements do not gel together particularly well. The decision for having Alita being completely computer generated is an interesting idea in theory, so that there are minimal jumps in image continuity between the casual scenes and the action set pieces, but the difference between her and the rest of the non-CGI characters is always blatantly obvious. This isn’t a deal breaking aspect, to be clear, but immersion is a bit hard to maintain when the differences are so wide (I also had this issue with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 2016), especially when casual encounters occur in evident sets with actual three-dimensional space, and most of the fights and Motorball matches are completely computer generated.

While this blend of artificially-created fantasy and quirky reality has long been a lynchpin of Rodriguez’s style, and there are instances where it works rather well, Alita would have been far better served as a completely computer-generated animated movie, along the lines of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) and Beowulf (2007), because when the film is allowed to flex its technological muscles, it shines like the sun. However, even with such stellar visuals (for the most part) that brings us to the worst pitfall: the screenplay. Riddled with cliches, non-plot threads made to seem important (but pitter off and are not referenced again), nonsensical blocking which turn epic showdowns into a slog of tedium and repetition, and a completely contrived conclusion setting up a hopeful sequel that may never see the screen - the movie feels unique and yet completely played out in almost every way.

I was ready to just call this movie a multimillion-dollar mixed misadventure, but that’s when I got to the supplemental features on the Blu-ray release. Billed as an exploration of the film’s production and the narrative’s origins, the home release is weighed down with “over two hours” of features. “Alita’s World” is a motion comic which offers a deeper exploration into the universe of the film, which is buttressed by similar videos on other aspects of the story (such as Motorball). Numerous featurettes detailing scene deconstructions and the process of bringing the full digitized character of Alita to the screen are at the head of a veritable flood of bonus material that make the film all the more interesting, and all the more disappointing. To clarify, with the introduction of all of the new information, so many more aspects of the film now made clearer sense, but it took a Blu-ray extra to make the movie completely coherent - its world-building and universal logic are its poorest aspects, and no amount of eye-candy camera magic can sweeten it.

There were many times I whooped at the screen, pumped up by the action, but more often I was simply absorbing a wash of half-baked character dynamics and feeble plot mechanics that can be seen coming a galaxy away. For cinephiles and film production buffs, the extra features offer a very in-depth look into the production and conception of the film and its story, and is interesting in its own right - for the action junkies this’ll give you a fun ride for a while, but won’t linger long past the credits. Alita: Battle Angel could have been the next action movie franchise phenomenon, but sadly, I feel that we’re a while off from the epic adaptation that the manga so desperately deserves.


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