Here’s the thing: 25 years, however you slice it, is a very long time to wait.
Plucky little high school me was just getting into comic books when Yukito Kishiro’s GUNNM first hit American shelves as BATTLE ANGEL ALITA in 1994. Publisher Viz was still photocopying manga art in reverse for Western releases because the readership wasn’t large enough to attempt otherwise. (FYI, these days, Viz and other purveyors of Japanese comic books publish them in original right-to-left style to preserve the artist’s intent.) My aspiring artist best friend was poring over ALITA and Hiroaki Samura’s BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, and I began to pick up my own volumes when her excitement hit me through osmosis.
The world of BATTLE ANGEL ALITA was a massive, strange, and affecting one. Enhanced human cyborgs wandered a dirty Iron City beneath a kind of sky-eden (called Zalem in the film and Tiphares in the manga) that could only be reached through rumor; seedy aristocrats strung people along on credits with promises of sending them there. Ultra-violence abounded thanks to an anarchistic system of hunter-warriors whose faces were drawn in sharp angles against mech enhancements. And in the midst of all this was Alita herself: a tiny, sort of adorable robot with a wide-eyed stare, a big mouth, and a fighting technique that could explode people’s limbs.
It was the perfect playground for those of us just discovering our attraction to unnatural worlds. There was even a two-episode anime OVA in 1993 — gorgeous, although far too short. But a live action adaptation? Such a thing seemed eons away. How could anyone capture the grandeur?
Well, if there’s one thing James Cameron is good at, it’s grandeur. A longtime pet project for him, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is written and produced by Cameron, but he thankfully enlisted the help of grindhouse director Robert Rodriguez to ground his epic adventure in a gritty world and likeable actors so the soul of the story doesn’t get lost in all the majesty. Truly, for all the visual effects and violence, ALITA sports a surprisingly charismatic and capable cast in Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, and Keean Johnson.
Of course, the million dollar controversy is whether or not the film should have been cast using all Japanese actors; however, many of the character designs from the manga are reflected quite accurately. Dr. Ido, for example, has always been a round-nosed man with blonde hair, and Waltz imbues his portrayal with the original character’s mannerisms very naturally. Salazar’s CG-enhanced eyes, while manga-accurate, seem bizarre until the story advances into true cyborg territory and augmented humans are the norm.
But let’s get real: ALITA knows that you’re here for the action and special effects, and on that end, it truly delivers. Bless motion capture technology for enabling human actors to give meat to their parts while seemingly sporting clawed legs, metal shafts for necks, and designer robot arms. Thanks to these cyborg innards, most of the blood on screen is blue — which is what must have reduced the rating from R to PG-13, given the excessive evisceration and smashing of body parts. Watching Alita gracefully evade Grewishka’s clawed chain fingers is both breathtaking and a satisfying reflection of the philosophy that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and the most intimidating Goliath can be taken down with a well-placed kick.
As a longtime fan of the original story, I think it’s worth mentioning that Cameron and Rodriguez are clearly coming at this film from a place of love for Yukito Kishiro’s manga. It is slavishly faithful to the comic book narrative, which may have played a role in why it took so long to bring to the big screen, and manages to successfully string together the first four volumes of BATTLE ANGEL ALITA without neglecting too many plot elements (although Grewishka’s tragic back story is sadly absent).
Unfortunately, since it did take 25 years, there have been many movies made in between consisting of similar premises and filming techniques, leading to some audience fatigue. There will inevitably be critics who point out tired tropes, claiming that “THE MATRIX did it first!” or “Why is this just a ripoff of ELYSIUM?” or “Didn’t they already make a Motorball movie?” — all of which could technically be true if you ignore the fact that GUNNM was first written and drawn when James Cameron’s most recent movie was TERMINATOR 2.
Ultimately, the 25 year wait works in two ways. For audiences unfamiliar with the comic book, ALITA might seem to be just another effects-laden science fiction movie with a “derivative” plot. As for me, I came out of the movie completely fulfilled. My 14 year old self couldn’t believe that I’d just seen two hours of Alita’s battle moves and Grewishka’s “GWAAA HA HA”s somewhere other than on a black and white printed page. Even if the general public has no idea what to do with ALITA and hits it with ridiculous backlash, those intimately familiar with GUNNM will no doubt be thrilled.
Bottom line: ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is a film that will absolutely resonate with fans of the comic, as well as anyone who enjoys a good cyberpunk splatter adventure. Detractors will likely focus on its liberal use of CG and “plucky, pretty heroine” trope. But for those of us who yearned to be cool in high school and buried our heads in comic books, Alita’s spunk and badassery is still the perfect avatar.
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL opens in theaters everywhere on February 14.