Promare wasn’t the only anime movie schlock to come out in 2019. We also had producer James Cameron’s long, long gestating project of adapting the Battle Angel manga finally hitting theatres. As a fan of the original run of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk story, I do think that this Robert Rodriguez helmed version makes a lot of the right aesthetic choices, and it leaves me with a goofy grin on my face, but it also commits a lot of the narrative sins of contemporary franchise-based Hollywood movie making.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place several centuries in the future after an apocalyptic way between Earth and Mars. The rich and powerful live on the floating city of Zalem, while the less fortunate live in the gigantic, sprawling Iron City on the Earth’s surface. Alita is a cyborg rescued from Iron City’s scrapyard and rebuilt by Dr. Ido, who sees her as a replacement for his murdered daughter. She has no memories about her life save knowledge of an advanced form of martial arts called Panzer Kunst. This leads her to pursue life as a bounty hunter in the hopes that she can learn more about her past via combat, which in turn brings her into conflict with the local crime lord, Vector.
This is a rough summary of a movie which lacks much of a throughline. Alita is a little bit too in awe of its own source material, and a little too sanguine about the possibility of a sequel. It just takes a bunch of plot threads from the manga and sandwiches them together. You’ve got the plotline involving Motorball, an ultraviolent form of roller derby popular in Iron City; you’ve got the one about Ido’s ex, Dr. Chiren; you’ve got Alita’s bland love interest, Hugo. None of this is shaped into anything resembling a coherent arc for our protagonist, and it all ends on a cliffhanger. The result is less like a movie and more like just a few episodes of a TV show haphazardly strung together; it’s a narrative fragment, and that’s profoundly disappointing for something with this much genuine enthusiasm behind it. I mean, this movie only exists because Cameron really wanted it to, and you can feel that love in the final product.
Alita: Battle Angel’s heart is in the right place. A weaker movie would be ashamed of the source material and try to downplay its essential weeb-ness in an attempt to secure a more mainstream audience (see, for instance, that Ghost In The Shell adaptation a few years back). But this movie is extremely in love with manga aesthetics and wants to lean into how over-the-top it can be. I knew that the movie was on my wavelength the first time I saw Dr. Ido’s gigantic, rocket-powered scythe. And also in its refusal to take a tonal steamroller to the material, or to make it appear more cool than it is. Alita is a story about a very sweet young lady beating the crap out of grizzly dudes who are Not Nice, and the movie doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.
The one decision that I wasn’t initially sold on was to, in a world of otherwise realistic-looking people, use motion capture technology to make Alita (Rosa Salazar) look exactly like how she appears in the manga, big anime eyes and all. There’s a very intentional evocation of the uncanny which is almost off-putting, but the performance made it work for me. That said, I know that for some people Alita’s design just kinda skipped right over into the grotesque.
But it’s also the rare cyberpunk movie that doesn’t rip off of Blade Runner and film noir, with Iron City having a sunny, Latin American vibe. The production design is refreshing to look at, and Cameron, for all his faults, knows where to put the money when it comes to spectacle.
I don’t have much else to say: I’m glad that Alita: Battle Angel exists, and I wish more people would see it. But it isn’t the popcorn masterpiece it could have been.