Adaptations from novel to film are notoriously difficult to pull off, with the chances of success dwindling when the adaptation includes a jump from one culture to another, often because the cultural elements of the source material are intrinsic to understanding the material. This is often why films like Dragonball Evolution, Death Note, and The Ghost in the Shell failed to gain traction despite such enormous global followings. Then there’re films like 2017’s Blade of the Immortal, adapted by Takashi Miike, which hewed closely to the material in content and spirit, yet couldn’t grasp that brass ring either. Perhaps the tide will change as frequent mischief-maker Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) teams with technological innovator James Cameron (Avatar) to tackle Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm for the first time in live-action as Alita: Battle Angel. Unfortunately, despite almost every action sequence being a spectacle rivaling any summer blockbuster (and very worthy of viewing in IMAX) and featuring performance capture work which almost manages to circumvent the uncanny valley, Alita contains such a convoluted narrative, perhaps too interested cramming in all the details, that it loses track of what makes the experience worth the watch: Alita herself.
Set in 2563, 300 years after The Fall, society is split into two groups: those who live on the ground in a community known as Iron City and those who live in the last remaining floating city called Zalem. While searching the junkyard beneath Zalem, cybernetic physician Daisuke Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the upper-torso of a still-functioning, but unconscious cybernetic female (Rosa Salazar) and takes her home for repairs. Though she’s in possession of old, yet powerful tech at her core, she awakens with amnesia, making her appearance both exciting and troubling to Ido. Soon dubbed Alita, she learns as much as she can about Iron City, the nearby Badlands, and the dangerous game called Motorball, which keeps the citizens distracted from their everyday lives. Despite her sweet, naïve demeanor, there’s something within her, a fighting spirit and honed instinct, which won’t allow her to stand idly by as terrible things happen around her, putting her in the cross-hairs of Iron City leader Vector (Mahershala Ali) and the mysterious leader of Salem, known only as Nova.
Seeing the names of Rodriguez and Cameron individually is enough to send most film geeks into a tizzy, but discovering they’re working together means audiences are in for a particular treat. Say what you will about his stories, Rodriguez knows how to make action come alive. Plus, a known-dabbler with technology (2003 was the year he first jumped into digital recording with Once Upon A Time in Mexico and into 3D with Spy Kids 3D, long before cinemas jumped back on the bandwagon), Rodriguez possesses the kind of creativity required to bring the art of Gunnm to life and the fearless attitude of an indie filmmaker. Then you bring in someone like Cameron, someone whose entire career includes not one or two, but several iconic scenes accomplished by pushing the boundaries of what technology was able to do in movies at the time, and you’ve got the right mix for a memorable cinematic journey. Even at its most over-stuffed, there’s no denying the scope of Alita. By their powers combined, audiences will feel absolutely immersed in each fight, rooting for Alita as she takes on one seemingly over-powered challenger after another until each battle is won. In one such sequence, before Alita begins to get an inkling of her past, she finds herself in a back alley brawl with three rogue cyborgs. As she surprisingly dispatches each one, there’s never a sense of watching a hi-res video game play out, which trailers did suggest. The actors engage with the real world during performance capture work, so what we see in the theater appears undeniably photo-realistic. Granted, there are a few scenes where human faces seem to bounce independently of the rest of their cybernetic bodies, but that may just be a side-effect of the 3D projection. For the majority of Alita, the 3D never seemed intrusive to the experience, adding depth to the world and impact to the many action sequences. Frankly, it’s a film like Alita making such great use of technology to enhance the immersion and wonder that makes an IMAX or 3D screening a near necessity, even if it’s just to get the scope the material aims for.
As fantastic as Alita looks and as much a part of the action the audience feels, Alita is so entirely over-stuffed that when it’s not jumping from one exposition dumping scene to another, it’s jumping from one character to another. Considering Gunnm is comprised of nine volumes and the world is inhabited by a large swath of characters, a certain amount of set-up at the beginning is expected, except nearly every scene in the first hour feels like all it does is introduce new characters. This means that as soon as the audience is gaining some kind of momentum with one character’s story, the whole film grinds to a halt to set up another. This continuous jumping hinders the audience from engaging fully and from truly investing in the world of Alita. This is one of the pitfalls of adapting novels, comics, or any other medium to cinema: the printed word can take its time introducing, establishing, and developing relationships in characters. In film, you’ve got the length of the runtime to do it all. Readers expect to take their time reading, whereas movie audiences are fine taking their time as long as the experience is complete. With Alita, it doesn’t feel complete. In fact, after a series of stops-and-starts serving as character development between action sequences, the dominos start to fall and Alita seems to rev up to an emotional climax, and then…it just stops. After spending so much time building and building, this seemingly abrupt end epitomizes Alita’s Achilles heel: it wants to be all things to all audiences and, in doing so, forgets the inherent needs of the medium. There’s nothing wrong with a film containing multiple characters, each maintaining their own arcs. It’s the lack of balance and focus as everything swirls around Alita that become obvious soon after the film begins.
The success of Alita seemed like a forgone conclusion given its struggles to get to the theater. First intended to drop July 2018, it was moved to December 2018, before settling on February 2019. Many took this as a lack of confidence in the final product and, frankly, despite its struggles, Alita is the exact kind of film audiences go to the theater for. We go to be amazed and to be wowed and Alita accomplishes this on several levels. Sure, the number of characters is almost unwieldy and the editing kills a lot of the narrative momentum, but the few performances you can latch onto – Salazar and Waltz, specifically – and the incredible marvel of technological feats make Alita worth the price of admission. Plus, even if it’s only a few moments, watching Mahershala Ali chew some scenery or stand menacingly is some damn good fun. Whatever your expectations for Alita: Battle Angel, Rodriguez and Cameron can and do produce a cinematic event worthy of the tech which brought it life and is bound to delight general audiences who have little knowledge of the source material. As an audience member with zero knowledge of the source, I can only say that I’d like to know more about the world of Alita and see Salazar whoop some more cyborg butts, just in a more streamlined package.
In theaters nationwide February 13th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.