Much like video game movie adaptations, ever since the infamous Dragon Ball Evolution, live action Hollywood remakes of anime classics have always seemed doomed to fail, . Sometimes they never escape development hell like the many failed attempts to remake Akira, or they get caught up in casting controversies like the live action Ghost in the Shell that hurt the movie’s image with the movie-going public. Alita: Battle Angel has been a passion project for acclaimed film director James Cameron for the past two decades, but has it finally broken the curse on live action anime remakes?
Based on the 1990 sci-fi manga Gunnm (released in North America as Battle Angel Alita) by Yukito Kishiro, this dystopia sci-fi classic tells the story of a young cyborg girl named Alita (Gally in the original Japanese version) who is discovered and repaired by the scientist Dr. Ido in the scrapyards of Iron City, which dwells below the floating utopian city of Zalem. Alita meets a young boy named Hugo (originally Yugo) who she instantly falls in love with that dreams of making it to Zalem one day by any means necessary. Blessed with advanced cybernetics, Alita registers as a Hunter Warrior to team up with Dr. Ido to track down criminal cyborgs to help Hugo fullfill his dream of making it to Zalem one day.
As someone who is typically skeptical of live action anime remakes but still wants to give them a chance to succeed, I’m pleased to say I surprisingly really enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel. I never read the original manga, and my only experience with the story of Gunnm is through the 1993 two part OVA anime adaptation that I watched way back in high school in my early days of anime fandom. Approaching Alita as someone with a more casual appreciation for the original story, I thought they did a respectably good job of streamlining the story for a mainstream audience while also being surprisingly faithful to the source material. There are a few liberties taken but for the most part there are many moments where it follows the original almost scene for scene. Some storylines from the later chapters of the manga like the famous Moterball arc have been rearranged to take place earlier in the story.
Although I already had experienced the OVA years ago, the movie still managed to keep me on the edge of my seat with all it’s twists and turns. The action scenes are exciting and the plot is engaging with some thought provoking themes on economic inequality and in the case of this movie, literal class warfare which feels especially relevant to the struggles society faces today. I also really liked Zalem and what it was like in that society was kept a complete mystery in the film. It adds to the illusive romanticized nature of the Utopian society that it’s always kept just out of reach by both the characters and the audience but you can sense that Zalem is not all that it seems to be either. Although some critics have compared Alita and Hugo’s romance to a YA novel, I personally found it to be emotionally compelling and I appreciated it doesn’t end in a typical happily ever after fashion. In spite of the movie being 122 minutes, I never felt like it was rushed or confusing to keep up with and they covered all the core beats of the early chapters of the manga well and the OVA anime well.
The film is directed by Robert Rodriguez who is known for the Spy Kids franchise, Sin City, and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For among other films with James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis for screenplay and Cameron also serving as producer with Steven Skoll. As to be expected from a Cameron film, the special effects are always very impressive and you really feel like you’re in the world of Iron City and the Motorball scenes are especially exhilarating. There was a lot of divisiveness early on because Cameron made the unusual decision to add digital effects to Alita’s eyes to make her uniqueness as a character stand out more. The movie was initially delayed to redo the special effects for Alita’s eyes and I can confirm it’s a large improvement. It never felt distracting to me and I never experienced any sort of uncanny valley effect. After the first scene of Alita waking up, you get used to it pretty quickly and I actually forgot it was there for the rest of the film. The music is composed by Tom Holkenborg of Wonder Woman fame and it’s a decent score that works well for the movie though nothing that particularly stands out.
My only real criticism of Alita is that the movie ends on a cliffhanger that feels a little tacked on to be an obvious sequel hook. While the manga does continue on much further, I felt like the sequel hook was really unnecessary because the material from the manga they covered really felt like a stand alone story to me. Not all stories need to have an optimistic ending to feel complete and they could have ended it just fine on a more tragic note as that was what they did with the original OVA anime. The biggest problem with the sequel hook is that while the movie did get some decent critical reviews and has had a lot of positive word of mouth buzz being spread, it’s still struggling to break even. With the upcoming 20th Century Fox/Disney merge, that makes it somehow seem less likely that Disney will will want to risk making a sequel to a movie that is struggling to break even. when Disney will likely want to focus on their own successful properties and Cameron is devoting the rest of his attention to his Avatar sequels.
Even if Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t get a sequel, I think it’s still worth seeing on the big screen while you still can for the unique experiencing of finally getting a well done live action Hollywood anime remake. Hopefully the positive reception of Alita: Battle Angel will raise the bar for the kind of quality future live action anime remakes should strive for. At the very least, we did finally get the original manga re-released in English thanks to the live-action movie, and now I definitely want to go read it to see what happens next in the story. Even if you’re not a big fan of anime and manga, if you just enjoy unique sci-fi stories, I do highly recommend checking out Alita: Battle Angel and I think you’ll have a good time with it. I give Alita: Battle Angel a four out of five star rating.