The best thing about Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel is that it presents English-speaking audiences with an adaptation of a high-profile Japanese pop-culture property, Yukito Kishiro's manga, that isn't either hopelessly divisive or a flat-out embarrassment to everyone involved. Every dime of the movie's lavish budget is on the screen, and fans of the source (me among them) will appreciate the care with which the original was used as a starting point for something big and bold and exciting. What works less well is when it tries to be its own thing. As an adaptation, it's terrific; as a movie by any other name, it's only okay, in big part because it tries to do a few too many things at once.
From fallen to avenging angel
Those who know the original Alita manga will recognize how many chunks from it have been mixed freely and stitched together. Beneath a purportedly paradisical far-future floating city, Zalem, lies another burg, Iron City, a giant shantytown that lives off the scraps and cast-offs of its higher brother. One day cyborg repairman Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) pokes around in the trash and finds what's left of an android girl — just the head, but with the human brain inside somehow still alive.
He christens her "Alita" (Rosa Salazar), and outfits her with the robot body he'd originally created for his now-deceased daughter. Alita is both literally and figuratively wide-eyed, a naïf with no memory and great enthusiasm for anything that crosses her path. She also has buried combat reflexes that emerge at opportune moments. Whatever she once was, she longs to remember, even if her new father Ido is loath to go digging around in that muck.
Ido has secrets of his own. He's a "hunter-warrior", one of the city's bounty hunters that tracks down wanted criminals and brings in their severed heads for cash. Alita tags along unwanted on one of his nightly hunts, and ends up making short work of the cyborg hulks that try to slice Ido apart. That's both impressive and intimidating to Hugo (Keean Johnson), the teen street rat who clearly has a thing for Alita and does his best not to let her in on his secret — that he jacks cyborgs for parts and sells them to underground kingpin Vector (Mahershala Ali). All this he has been doing to finance his impossible dream of emigrating to Zalem, something Alita might also be able to do as a bounty hunter — or perhaps also as a player in the violent and deadly game of Motorball. But Alita's true past, the very thing that empowers her to do all of the above, is also the thing that may doom all of it.
A little too much of everything
It's clear the main throughline of the story is Alita's quest for identity and self-knowledge, and it delivers on that score despite the movie piling a score of other things on top of it. Alita progresses through the stages of amnesiac nobody, street fighter, bounty hunter, bloodsport player, and finally avenging angel, with bared teeth and headlong heedlessness. The more she finds out what kind of killing machine she was originally designed to be, the greater her pool of strength to draw on to defend those she loves. But the movie's determination to stir in so many other elements from its source material makes her quest feel breathless and overloaded.
The cast I mentioned above, and the storylines they provide, would have been enough to sustain a decent plot. But we also get Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), an oversized sadist tasked with slaying Alita for the sake of the ever-unseen head honcho of Zalem, Nova. And Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido's ex-wife, now working for Vector and helping him build monster machines for his gladiatorial sports franchise. And Zapan (a sneering Ed Skrein), a competing bounty hunter determined to make Alita suffer for her arrogance by targeting her would-be boyfriend. By the time all this comes to a head, the movie's been jumping tracks for so long its internal rhythm feels dislodged, and so the actual ending arrives like a derailing even if it isn't designed that way. (After the credits rolled, the guy behind me shouted in disbelief: "That's it? That's the movie?!")
One thing I never doubted would be an issue was the effects work. Alita's oversized eyes, the biggest aesthetic obstacle, look strange for about ten seconds and then recede into the background as the character herself takes prominence. Director Robert Rodriguez has long been an avid and effective user of special effects, especially on small budgets (see: Sin City). Here, with nine figures to put to use, he gives us an endless and convincing cityscape, and the kind of ripped-from-the-pages action sequences that are only possible with a virtual camera. But again, the best-spent part of the budget is for Alita herself. Every fight she hurls herself into is raucous homage to the crazy kinetics Kishiro laid down for her. One boon of waiting for this film as long as we did: if it had come out in, say, 2005, the environments and backdrops would have looked okay but Alita herself would likely have looked like something out of a PlayStation 2 game.
It also helps that where the effects leave off, Salazar's performance sells Alita for us the rest of the way. When she smiles, it's for real. I wasn't as impressed with the rest of the cast, though — Christoph Waltz looks out of sorts; Keean Johnson is too bland to be convincing as a teen love interest; and the rest compensate by chewing scenery and trying not to be upstaged by their own digital makeovers.
Do androids dream of box-office receipts?
In the week before I headed into the theater, I re-read the first three volumes of the manga — it's all coming back out again domestically thanks to Kodansha — and that reaffirmed my original feeling Alita was one of the better candidates for a Western live-action adaptation of a Japanese anime/manga property. It didn't need to be torn down to the studs and rebuilt into a fundamentally different property to be coherent to non-fans, and it didn't pose the problematic casting issues that haunted Ghost In The Shell. The hardest part would be getting enough money to do it justice. Still, a lot of the more outlandish elements of the original story were probably never going to make it into a mainstream film — e.g., one character that served as a source for Grewishka ate people's brains for sustenance. And sure enough, they haven't. Violent as the movie is, most of the mayhem we see is machine-on-machine, and so slips through that PG-13 loophole where mangled metal and spurting oil can swap for torn flesh and spilled blood.
If Alita needed any other reworking from its source, it was only in the sense that there was a staggering amount of source material to pick from, in the same way that adaptations of Marvel or DC (or Top Cow or Valiant) properties have an embarrassment of riches. My re-read informed me of how the movie draws rather freely from a broad range of Alita's adventures. It mostly uses the arc between Alita and Hugo in the first couple of volumes as its backbone, much as the two-episode OVA did. But it also sprinkles in ingredients from much further on out, mainly the explicit details about Alita's origins. I got the impression Rodriguez — and screenwriters James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis — didn't want to make fans feel like they were leaving out beloved details, but that came at the cost of the movie trying to round too many bases in too few innings.
Most of my gripes about Alita's overstuffed storytelling aren't likely to survive a second viewing. A whole swath of fandom, anime and otherwise, has been waiting for this film for upwards of two decades, and it has every right to celebrate. I like that this film finally got made, that it survived a tortured production history to be worthy of its source, and that it doesn't feel like the product of one bad compromise after another. That Alita is as good as it is at all is some kind of miracle. I also feel like a little less of it, more carefully deployed, would have gone a longer way.