Cinematic Releases: The Rusty Angel: Alita: Battle Angel (2019) - Reviewed

If you told me back when I was a teenager in the '90s that Battle Angel would get a big budget western live action movie I wouldn't have believed you. Yet here we are in the year 2019 and not only does it exist, it's pretty damn good! 

Battle Angel Alita, known as Gunnum in Japan, was a serialized manga series written and illustrated by Yukito Kishiro. It ran in Business Jump magazine from 1990-1995 and was also adapted into a two episode OVA in 1993. Oddly, it never got picked up for a longer anime series or live action movie in Japan and has become a sort of cult and underrated series. James Cameron originally said he would direct the film adaptation in 2003, but after numerous delays Robert Rodriguez was picked to helm the production.

The plot of Alita: Battle Angel is similar to the manga with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovering Alita's head in a junkyard (with an intact brain and stem) and putting it into a cyborg body. He makes Alita (Rosa Salazar) his adopted daughter and she has to acclimate to life in Iron City, a decimated and poor living area that is the dumping ground for garbage from the affluent floating city of Zalem. Alita has amnesia, but she starts to remember fragmented parts of her past that might change the future for both herself and the citizens of Iron City forever.

Let's address the elephant in the room: Alita's large anime style eyes. For whatever reason, they decided to use the stylized big eye look from the manga and anime and implement it into her live action character design. As jarring as it looked in the trailers, in the finished product it actually works out pretty well. The CGI effects in this film are fantastically done with lots of motion capture work seamlessly integrated with real actors. It's impressive how it all fits together to make a cohesive cyberpunk aesthetic. The manga is quite a bit grittier than the film which is understandable as they had to convert R-rated material into a PG-13 narrative, but it does push the limits of the rating. Fans of the original manga will most likely find it to feel watered down as a result.

It's inevitable that things will be changed when going from one medium to another, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this film was pretty faithful to the manga (with some bits that were specific to the OVA incorporated) and it was apparent that they respected the source material. The theme of Alita achieving self-actualization was preserved, as well as the romantic elements and it is just as action-packed as the manga. Rosa Salazar does an excellent job portraying both the innocent and berserker sides of Alita's character. The action scenes are fast and exhilarating with the Motorball sequences standing out the most.

The main negatives are the writing, which is hokey at times and the pacing, which is rushed. The third act is anti-climatic and it's obviously building up to a sequel that might not happen if the movie doesn't do well. It feels very unsatisfying. I wish every blockbuster film didn't have to be setting up a franchise and with something as niche as Battle Angel it would have been a better idea to keep it self-contained. That being said, overall, this is one of the best live action manga adaptations (it's a low bar though) and hopefully this might open Hollywood up to making more faithful adaptations of this type of material.

--Michelle Kisner