Sure, traditional superheroes have successfully made the leap from comics to the big screen, however when it comes to manga, the success rate has been more subdued. I'm thrilled to say that while Alita: Battle Angel is unlikely to threaten Blade Runner on anyone's top films list- it's a vibrant universe, well-paced, action-filled, and a fine way to spend a few hours.
Based on the "Battle Angel Alita" manga series by Yukito Kishiro, it's been a longtime passion project for writer/producer James Cameron and Sin City director Robert Rodriguez.
Set in the 26th century- several hundred years after a catastrophic war between Earth and it's Mars colony- Earth has been left largely devastated. Extensive cybernetic replacement in humans has become commonplace. While foraging for spare parts amongst a vast garbage dump, Dr. Dyson Ido (played by Christoph Waltz) discovers a decapitated cyborg head containing a still-living human brain.
Attaching it to a new body, Ido manages to re-activate the cyborg's functions. Since she has no memories of her past, he names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). It's a bit of a fish out of water story with Alita trying to understand the world around her and how she fits in.
With Cameron at the producing helm, the special effects and CGI being top-notch should come as no surprise. Rosa's performance and ability to emote would make Andy Sirkis proud. Anime/manga eyes have often been exaggerated as large on the printed page, but here it's in full play in a "live-action" situation and it works.
I'm not often a fan of 3-D in movies – the effect it often only included as a token effort, but there's so much depth and use of reflections on glass and layering here that Cameron has taken the skills he'd learned for Avatar to a whole new level. If you have ever wanted another film that actually adds to the effect and worth paying the extra few $ for 3-D, this would be a solid contender.
There's plenty of extreme violence and gore for fans of the original material; a Rollerball-inspired deathmatch sport called Motorball pulls out all the stops.
Is it a brilliant run of storytelling, or a classic for the ages? Not even close, in fact its format as a 2-hour film actually plays against it. Seeing it as a Netflix or Amazon limited-series might have given it the space to breathe and explore a lot more of the world.
Alita: Battle Angel opens worldwide on February 14th.