Anime is the final frontier, the last genre that Hollywood can’t seem to crack. Just look to the hilariously misguided Dragon Ball or the shallow husk that is Ghost in the Shell. Whether it be out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material, the messiness of cultural and racial divides, or simply the incompatibility of anime with any live-action form, anime adaptations have had a notoriously bad track record in Hollywood.
But Alita: Battle Angel may have just broken that losing streak.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez from a screenplay by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, Alita: Battle Angel is a technological marvel of a film that finally understands and embraces the inherent silliness of anime. Action anime, in their purest form, are heightened storytelling to the nth degree, relying on spectacle over substance and endearing themselves to their audiences through repetition. Vibrant and tactile, Alita: Battle Angel leans into that eye-popping spectacle while grounding the dystopian story in a warm humanism that has otherwise eluded anime adaptations up until now.
Based on Yukito Kishiro‘s manga series Battle Angel Alita, Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel follows an amnesiac cyborg (Rosa Salazar) who is discovered in a scrapyard by a cybermedic scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). After repairing her and outfitting her with a new body, Ido takes the cyborg under his wing and names her Alita. But as Alita settles into life in the city of Scrapyard, an impoverished and bustling slum that lies beneath a city in the sky, they soon learn that she is outfitted with advanced powers and a fighting instinct that threatens to upend the precarious existence that Ido and Alita have established.
Alita loves herself a good scrap (pun intended), and Alita: Battle Angel indulges in many a fight scene. But oh, do those fight sequences soar. That’s quite an achievement considering how heavily Rodriguez relies on CG and motion-capture technology to craft those sequences, but rather than dissolving into computer-animated soup, the action is always remarkably assured and easy to follow. Dazzling and dizzying, the fight sequences in Alita: Battle Angel captures the dynamism of watching an anime without feeling so cartoonish that there are no stakes. In fact, it’s almost a miracle that Alita: Battle Angel managed to score a PG-13 rating — the violence at points becomes so gratuitous that the film treads into horror territory. But because much of this is cyborg-on-cyborg violence, the film narrowly avoids that R-rating, no matter how many people are bisected.
For all its larger-than-life visuals, the story of Alita: Battle Angel is fairly simple and recognizable, almost to the point of being rote. If not for its visual splendor, it wouldn’t stand out from any other post-apocalyptic cyberpunk story. And that’s likely because its source material, Battle Angel Alita, came around the tail end of the cyberpunk phenomenon, recycling many of those themes of identity that had already been explored in superior titles. It’s the elements that are lifted straight from the manga that drag the film down and leave the middle part of the film bloated with unnecessary detours and plotlines. The endless exposition about “The Fall” and the hints at Alita’s mysterious past life leave you with the unsatisfactory impression that Alita: Battle Angel is gearing up for a series of sequels.
The fixation on Motorball — a gladiatoral sport that is best described as murder Quidditch meets NASCAR — feels very dated, like a relic of the time in which the manga was first published in the ’90s. The sequences are jaw-dropping, but end up feeling tedious after the third go-around. However, one manga element that does work in favor of the film is the romance between Alita and Hugo, thanks to Salazar’s expressive and empathetic performance, aided by her instantly infamous giant doe eyes, which yes, kind of work. Alita’s eternally uncanny eyes are actually a great analogue for the film itself: a heightened visual gimmick that better delivers the film’s outsized emotions.
Salazar is the breakout of Alita: Battle Angel, portraying her character’s optimistic naïveté and lust for life with an enthusiasm that rarely grates. Some of the supporting cast are hit or miss — depending on whether they’re aware of the type of movie they’re in — but aside from Waltz, who gamely dodders around in a fedora while carrying a giant sci-fi scythe, it’s the villains who threaten to steal the show. Jackie Earle Haley impresses as a giant homicidal cyborg, while Ed Skrein vamps it up as a cyborg bounty hunter with a mohawk. Mahershala Ali feels sadly wasted in his role as the Motorball-rigging mastermind Vector, but he is delightfully sinister when possessed by the real Big Bad of the film, a (mostly) unseen figure named Nova.
Perhaps the success of Alita: Battle Angel comes from the lack of expectations surrounding a property not especially well-known to western audiences. Rodriguez can craft his vivid and visceral world and take as much creative license as he pleases, without the pressure to please fans. But more than benefiting from the lowest of expectations when it comes to anime adaptations, Alita: Battle Angel is a solid, visually stunning blockbuster that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.