I went into Alita: Battle Angel not expecting much, especially after reading mixed-to-middling reviews. I did hear chatter from anime and manga fans, however, who absolutely loved it. I'm pretty tired of big CGI blockbusters.
I loved it.
It's gleefully pulpy and proud of it.
It's been a while since I loved a big blockbuster movie. This is the first Hollywood adaptation of a manga that works. It understands what it was that made the manga appealing and wants to preserve that instead of needlessly change it in the way failures like Ghost in the Shell or the horrendous Dragon Ball live action movies did. It knows it doesn't need to fix parts that are not broken. It's definitely Yukito Kishiro's manga translated to the screen.
This movie is a labour of love. James Cameron is a filmmaker who can write his own ticket and make any project he wants. Only love would make him spend twenty years nurturing and developing this project from a manga that only hardcore fans know about. He waited all this time for CGI effects technology to finally make this movie possible. It doesn't look like a Robert Rodriguez movie at all, it feels totally like a James Cameron movie.
I don't feel there's any cynical calculation in the story here. Cameron is telling another story about archetypal female warriors that he's always been interested in. It's a direct and visceral message of empowerment: that girls can be unstoppable warriors when they decide to be. The symbolism and message here are not at all subtle – that unironic, unashamed emotional directness is why manga and anime are so popular amongst kids and teenagers. Cameron and Rodriguez show they're fully aware of that.
I was impressed that the script by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (who created the Birds of Prey TV series back in 2002 and was most recently the showrunner of the Netflix series adaptation of Richard Morgan's cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon) takes separate plotlines from the first four volumes of the manga and meshes them into a single coherent whole. Rodriguez allegedly cut the script down from 186 pages and 600 pages of notes to a two-hour story that never feels dull.
I was dubious at first, but now I understand why they gave Rosa Salazar the anime big eyes. She's already a terrific actress giving a highly emotional, empathetic performance, but Cameron knew the big eyes would bring out and amplify all the emotions in a direct way that manga and anime does. It's her performance that carries the whole movie, and it already has a very good heavyweight cast. Cynics say the big eyes and CGI make her look creepy and like a sex doll, but she's really James Cameron's version of a Pixar heroine who's been put into a live-action Science Fiction epic. She's supposed to be unique because she's the last of her kind, so her look actually makes sense.
The unsung hero of this movie is the casting director. Every actor, every face, every performance in it fits and doesn't get lost in the CGI sets and action. Most movies and TV shows have the characters talk about their emotions out loud as if they're in therapy, whereas this movie has them express their emotions through looks and gestures, which is how good screenwriting, acting, and filmmaking works. Christoph Waltz can play a kindly dad trying to heal his own broken heart with just a few wistful half-smiles. Keean Johnson sells the thankless part of Alita's love interest with a low-key assurance. Ed Skrein plays a smug, vicious bounty hunter cyborg with the right amount of sneering relish. Jennifer Connelly plays a conflicted villain whose doubts and conscience are conveyed in silence glances. Mahershala Ali plays a double-dealing gang boss with just the right amount of nuance for what might otherwise be a one-dimensional role. We even get Jeff Fahey as a cyborg bounty hunter who uses robot dogs. Jackie Earle Haley plays a monstrous cyborg with layers of emotional anguish under his murderous sadism. But in the end, it's Salazar who carries the whole movie. Every emotion is amplified in those big eyes like a direct window to the movie's heart.
And this is a movie with a lot of heart, it feels more emotional than most blockbusters, and that's all down to Alita's CGI face. There's a recurring theme of loss throughout the movie. Every character is suffering or will suffer loss, including Alita herself.
James Cameron hasn't changed. He's still interested in the same themes about technology, the future, war, violence, female empowerment, and unstoppable women warriors. His forte is heroines who are unapologetic, uncompromising forces of nature. Alita is the story of the reforging of a broken weapon, and the tragedy is this weapon has a heart that can ache. Alita embraces her role as a warrior with full passion and no angst. She fights with a ruthless efficiency, completely focused on winning, even when she's badly injured. She feels no hesitation or regret in killing because the people and creatures she kills are the worst of the worst. There's a moment where she chooses not to kill a character who deserves it, instead maims him in the cruelest way possible to punish him. All without regret.
While Cameron hasn't changed, the mixed-to-middling reviews for the movie and lack of buzz suggests that reviewers and film culture may be different now. If this movie had come out five or ten years ago, it might be a much bigger hit.
Perhaps the marketing is failing to connect with audiences because Alita fits with the YA Science Fiction movie trend that's now all but dead. It's a heroine's coming-of-age story like The Hunger Games and Divergent movies were. We've already seen The Mortal Engines, adapted from a moderately successful YA book series, become the biggest box office bomb of 2018, but that movie had too many moving parts and its story often felt colour-by-numbers.
In the Hunger Games and Divergent movies, the heroine falling in love is portrayed as something that threatens to weaken or compromise her. With Alita, falling in love is not a weakness at all – in fact, it makes her even stronger and more unstoppable. There's a refreshing purity in the lack of contrived emotional baggage as Alita embraces her destiny.
In the end, Cameron, Kalogridis, and Rodriguez are telling the story of the mythical awakening of a warrior goddess whose compassion is boundless but whose wrath is just as merciless.
If you want to see a Science Fiction action movie with a deep, fully-realised world and an epic heroine, you should give Alita: Battle Angel a chance. The haters are wrong.