Alita Shows The Good And The Bad In Adaptations
Rosa Salazar plays a kickass robot with big eyes in a film with a ton of machines. We can’t blame a lot of us for being enticed with Alita: Battle Angel because of its flashy aesthetics. It’s also not everyday you see James Cameron being attached to a science fiction film. So what exactly is Alita: Battle Angel?
Alita serves as the live action adaptation of Battle Angel Alita, a science fiction manga series. The story sets itself in a post-apocalyptic setting, of which appears fairly common amongst literature in the 90’s.
The story of Alita: Battle Angel happens in Iron City. In this 26th century dystopia, cyborgs and humans try to co-exist in a society rife with crime and violence.
Alita wakes up without memories, and overwhelmed with many new things around her. Cyborgs routinely get parts snatched and replaced, and the populace entertain themselves with the cutthroat sport Motorball. Perhaps most importantly, people aspire to earn enough to travel to Zalem, located just above Iron City.
Robert Rodriguez did a fairly decent job presenting Alita’s world through the guidance of James Cameron. And for something James Cameron considers as a dream project, production has a lot riding on Alita. And you can feel that throughout the entire film.
Alita: Battle Angel… Of What?
Fans and newcomers to the franchise who decide to deep dive into the mythos may come to understand what made James Cameron become inspired enough to push for an adaptation. However, it might help if we give a bit of a throwback.
Yukito Kishiro created the series back in 1990, with Shueisha’s Business Jump serving as its publisher. After nine (9) volumes, Battle Angel Alita (Gunnm in Japan) continues in Battle Angel Alita: Last Order, and Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle. Gunnm, which served as the backdrop of the adaptation, ran from 1990 and 1995. What’s it about, though?
Battle Angel Alita sets itself in a dystopian world where majority of humans survive through scraps and leftovers that rain down from sky cities. “Pure” humans live in luxury in these floating fortresses, while ground dwellers have to resort to cybernetics to survive. Alita’s story begins when she wakes up in a new cybernetic body, devoid of her memories. Daisuke Ido, a cybermedic, finds her core amongst various garbage in Scrapyard, a city aptly named as it serves as the final destination for scraps from the Tiphares, the sky city above it.
Alita soon acquaints herself in a world rife with crime and violence. Law enforcement is practically nonexistent, save for Hunter Warriors who hunt “criminals” for bounty. People entertain themselves through the brutal sport Motorball. And dreams range from survival, to “outlandish” ones like ascending to Tiphares – a dream criminals tend to exploit.
Alita: The Angelic Appeal
Battle Angel Alita reads and feels like your “typical” late 20th century cyberpunk manga. “Typical,” in a way that a lot of material released at the time did tackle philosophical and socio-cultural concerns. Alita’s companions at the time included manga like Ghost in the Shell (Masamune Shirow, 1989), Trigun (Yasuhiro Nightow, 1995), and AKIRA (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1982). These companions, like Alita, ushered in a more complex take into the human condition. Their stories shared how futuristic concepts and technological advancements can affect the state of human affairs.
Kishiro didn’t hesitate putting readers straight into the action. Alita truly acts like a “battle angel,” continuously finding ways to even the odds against mightier and faster opponents. Kishiro also wasted no time using scientific concepts to supplement both combat and the narrative. Readers will more often than not have to read footnotes to understand much of the concepts Kishiro introduced in his universe. Alita volumes often come with extra pages that explain more nuanced concepts in this dystopia.
However, perhaps the strongest grip Alita had amongst readers will be the way it explores the human condition. Should cyborgs be considered human? Where does the consciousness “lie” when even the brain can be tampered with? And when fighting is all you know, can you still truly love?
Alita explores these concepts through her journey. The manga revolves around Alita and her interactions with the world. And Alita, being the readers’ eyes and ears, make way for quite a good story.
The Pressure Of 20: The Battles Of An Adaptation
Alita gained hype not just because of fandom, but also because James Cameron did declare it a personal project. In fact, one could say the film was 20 years in the making.
Reception to earlier releases such as Avatar (the blue aliens) and Dark Angel proved Cameron capable of creating spectacular settings. Avatar became a visually stunning and compelling take on connecting races and cultures (sans talking trees). Meanwhile, fans consider Dark Angel as Cameron’s love letter to the Battle Angel franchise.
However, Cameron himself got busy helming the direction of the Avatar sequel. This explains Cameron becoming producer for the Alita adaptation, with the directing reins being handed over to Robert Rodriguez. And while Cameron himself built Alita: Battle Angel‘s setting, worldbuilding and storytelling are two hugely different concepts. Both Alita fans and casual moviegoers may wonder – does Alita: Battle Angel actually deliver?
Alita faces a lot of the ailments adaptations normally have. Films tend to find it difficult finding the line between showcasing an entire story and showing a part of it. Alita, which in itself contains three (3) parts, almost suffered the same fate. Almost being the operative word.
A Stunning Standalone Film
It might help viewers to look at Alita from the perspective of a standalone film first, an adaptation second. As a standalone story, Alita fares quite well for a sci-fi flick. Rosa Salazar stuns as Alita, and performances from Cristoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, and Keean Johnson help bring life to Iron City.
Aside from memes surrounding Alita’s, well, face, the graphics and CGI work appear spectacular. Visuals surround you with just enough detail without being too overwhelmed. And the rusty yet “colorful” backdrop of Iron City brings little pieces of life to an otherwise dead world. Fight scenes never gave Alita a dull moment, as the protagonist can take on any foe with her built-in reflexes.
The film also does justice to its setting. It’s not always “sad” in Iron City: people make do with what they have. If you don’t get into the eyes of the Factory and its Hunter Warriors, you’re free to do as you wish. You can hunt, sell, join Motorball, you name it. These tiny elements, among others, permeate throughout the story. And while screenplay admittedly needs work, the world in itself tries to act independently from the cast.
Alita presents its story in digestible parts. And each of its story segments transition into the next without much trouble in terms of continuity. Alita: Battle Angel serves as a neatly-packaged adaptation in that regard. Those familiar with the franchise will see the film as an adaptation of Alita’s first two (2) volumes. This admittedly isn’t a lot, and Alita‘s story naturally positions itself to have a sequel. However, you’ll see cracks when you notice Alita‘s struggles to “adapt” its source.
An Adaptation On Steroids
When viewers say Alita’s screenplay needed work, story events will definitely prove their point correct. Alita made quick work of her origin story: the film introduced the relevant cast, and how they can influence the world they were living in almost immediately. At the same time, the film set up conflicts of interest, multiple flashbacks, and “cogs” to move the plot along.
Normally, adaptations suffer because exposition and escalation happen one after the other. As a result, this leaves filmmakers with no time to mesh these elements together for proper storytelling. In Alita, production introduced both its setting and its conflict concurrently, as the plot progressed.
When viewers meet characters like Ido (Waltz), Vector (Ali), Hugo (Johnson), and Chiren (Connely), it’s implied their motives are already set. It’s when Alita (the viewer) experiences these cogs move “on their own” that make things a bit too fast. It doesn’t help that these “individual movements” need to “slow down” for the viewer to absorb via exposition.
As a result, the film does feel as though it’s an entire living organism on its own. And somehow, each character has their own individual path. It’s really thanks to Alita’s arrival that their paths started merging, like a whirlpool with the protagonist at the center.
And while this format theoretically can make for a decent story, it does feel rushed.
Is It The Format?
When we say it feels “rushed,” it’s not “rushed” as in “without effort,” though.
If Alita wants to have a sequel, it will have to end somewhere that tells enough but also leaves more to be explored. This may have been the only way to do it, as condensing nine (9) volumes’ worth of stories in a single film sounds ridiculous. As a result, Alita ends with the titular character decided to take the fight to Zalem. However, doing this means becoming Motorball champion and getting the “right” to ascend. Manga readers know there’s a lot more in store for her in the coming volumes. And production left viewers wanting more but not knowing what to expect.
However, the film’s portrayal of Alita’s stories leave much to be desired. In the manga, her companions contributed a lot in Alita’s growth. The manga explored how they looked at their lives and their roles in society. Granted, the film did portray Alita in a way that’s honest to her personality vis-a-vis the harsh life in Iron City. However, condensing her interactions for the sake of a seamless narrative may have conflicting reactions from fans.
Did the adaptation share Alita’s story in a way befitting its format? It did, despite some feeling it as your “usual” cyberpunk story. However, the film did seem to lack a bit of life. This may have stumped Alita’s growth. In the manga, Alita’s development is majorly influenced with her interactions with people around her. Not in the way that she’s a tabula rasa. But in that her worldview often gets shaped with conflicting opinions around her. Alita: Battle Angel may have shined with such a treatment, but admittedly not as a feature-length film.
Does Alita Need A Sequel? It Might Not
As previously mentioned, Alita is no stranger to the difficulties of an adaptation. Interestingly enough, this is a battle where Alita emerges victorious. Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron have done to Alita what a lot of have aspired in adaptations – make a decent-enough story to bring justice to its source.
This isn’t to say Alita in itself is exceptionally good. The film wouldn’t even qualify as a “masterpiece.”
However, if you look beyond the source and see Alita more in the context of its world, then one would say Rodriguez and Cameron did good work with Kishiro’s setting.
Personally, Alita seemed to position itself to be both an origin story and a standalone film. In fact, its identity might seem to hinge on critical reception. It set itself to have an ending that will be fit for a sequel. This is much evidently so if you’ve read the manga. However, it also ends on a tone enough to “cap” the story as it is.
A sequel wouldn’t even matter. Except, perhaps, to those who want to know how Alita will eventually reach her goals. And most importantly, what she’s sacrificed to accomplish it.
And while Alita didn’t come out as problematic as Ghost in the Shell (2017), viewers will leave wanting more from Alita. Whether this is in a good or bad way will be up to you.