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Review: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

In short, go see this movie. It's awesome. Alita: Battle Angel (2019) features an endearing main character who kicks butt, a plot and story far better than what the critics are claiming, edge-of-your-seat excitement, and excellent world-building. Refreshingly, the movie honors the source material. I rate Alita 9/10 = 4.5/5 stars. For a much more detailed review, keep reading.

Overview

Opening weekend, I had the opportunity to see the Alita: Battle Angel (2019) movie. I don't often write movie reviews (never mind the fact that I don't post to my blog anywhere near as often as I should). The exception, of course, is when the movie is based on something I've loved for a long time. Since the early nineties, I've been a fan of the original Battle Angel (1993) Anime and Gunnm comic (manga) by Yukito Kishiro on which Alita is based. My writing draws significant influence from Anime, and I would include Gunnm/Battle Angel as one of those influences.

In case you're unfamiliar with Alita: Battle Angel, here's a brief synopsis. In the 26th century, a cybernetics doctor finds the head and torso of a still-living girl, Alita, in a scrapyard of a dystopian city on Earth. When the doc rebuilds Alita, she can't remember her real name or anything about her past. However, her muscle memory is intact, so she still knows cybernetic martial arts. And thus begins her quest to rediscover her identity through the act of fighting. Hence, why they call her the Battle Angel.

I remember falling in love with the original Anime as a kid. It had a great main character (Alita), a great overall plot, a tragic love story, and lots of exciting action with a hefty dose of blood and gore. I liked the Anime so much that I went out and got my hands on the manga. The manga consists of three series, each with multiple volumes, and each volume contains multiple issues (individual comic books). The Alita movie covers the first of the three series. The second series is called Last Order and the third is dubbed Mars Chronicle. To this day, issues of Mars Chronicle are still being published. The Battle Angel saga is still going after almost 30 years.

Directed by Robert Rodrigez and produced by James Cameron, Alita: Battle Angel (2019) has been in the making for over twenty years. In the late 90s, Cameron flew to Japan and acquired the movie rights to Gunnm/Battle Angel from its creator, Yukito Kishiro. Due to Cameron's work on Avatar, he put Alita on the shelf for many years. Then when he realized he might never get to it due to work on Avatar 2, he turned the project over to Rodrigez to direct. Therefore, I've been waiting for this movie since before Cameron got the rights.

With the waiting finally over, what did I think of the Hollywood movie version of this classic manga and Anime? I've broken up this post into sections: summary (above), the overview you're reading now, my detailed review with no spoilers, a discussion about Alita's big Anime eyes that has uneducated people all bent out of shape, a rebuttal to the objectively-challenged critics, and a spoiler section comparing specifics of the movie to the source material.

Detailed Review (No Spoilers)

In short, I loved Alita: Battle Angel (2019). The movie was awesome. After somewhat of a letdown by Ghost in the Shell (2017), Alita renewed my hope in Hollywood Anime adaptions. The creators captured the essence of the Alita character and overall story. And of course, the action and worldbuilding was incredible. On the flip side, there were a few things that the movie lacked from the manga and/or Anime, but nothing to significant detriment. Alita was a very moving and exciting motion picture. It's so much better than most Marvel/DC movies and other big budget Hollywood flicks. The movie really reflects the amount of love that Cameron and Rodrigez had for the source material.

Regarding the plot, it's true that the story of an amnesiac character trying to rediscover his or her past has been done before. This plot angle is considered cliche in the literary world. However, despite the expected narrative changes to support the two-hour movie format, the plot of Alita stays reasonably true to the manga and Anime. So if the movie's plot is cliche, it would mean the original plot is cliche, which is not the case. Keep in mind that when you're viewing a movie based on 30-year-old source material, you need to adjust your expectations back to that time. In the early 90s, the reclaiming of a character's lost past hadn't been done nearly as much. Over the course of recent decades, many more stories have based on the same premise, reinforcing the cliche.

Remember Elysium (2013) starring Matt Damon? You'd better believe that Elysium's plot with the elitists living on a space station in orbit was based on Zalem in Gunnm/Battle Angel. But because people saw Elysium first, the perception of Alita's originality suffers unfairly. Elysium is only one of many examples of Hollywood stealing from Anime, manga, and other, lesser-known material. You might also remember a little flick called The Matrix, which borrowed a great many aspects of Ghost in the Shell. By the time Hollywood got around to making Ghost in the Shell (2017), a work of fiction with a premise far more original than The Matrix, audiences had already grown bored with similar types of movies.

It's also worth noting that, unlike Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel has never really been known for deep philosophical introspection. Whereas Ghost in the Shell (2017) was definitively lower brow than any of its source material, the level of depth of Alita (2019) is right in line with the Anime and manga.

I really identified with the Alita character in the movie. Rosa Salazar does a great job humanizing her. When Hugo (Alita's love interest) tells her that she's the most human person he's ever met (despite her being mostly cybernetic, hence the irony), I believed it. The perception was in line with how her character had been portrayed. She's a do-gooder who manages to be smiley and optimistic without coming across as annoyingly bubbly. When she gets angry and goes into warrior mode, I believe it as well. She's well-balanced.

As for her supporting cast, the doctor that rebuilds her, Ido, comes across as the same wise, loving, and overprotective father figure as in the source material. Hugo (Yugo in Gunnm) is the same good kid doing bad things to accomplish a dream. Unlike some purists who love the manga and don't like the Anime, I'm glad Alita's creators chose to put Chiren (another cyber doctor) in the movie (Chiren is not in the manga, only the Anime). The creators added some additional backstory between Ido and Chiren that wasn't in the source material but helped to round out the movie. I actually felt like Vector, the main antagonist who runs the factory that controls the city, wasn't nearly as evil in the movie as he was in the source material. Overall, the supporting cast does a great job doing what it should do: support the main character.

Perhaps best of all was what I overhead other movie goers saying as they walked out of the theater. More than one person said it was the best movie they had seen in a while. Trust that, people, not the critics.

Mind you, Alita is not perfect by any means. The creators left out several great elements from the source material that could've led to a more well-rounded story and critical praise. The plot is also admittedly straightforward. Girl rediscovers identity, becomes the "unbeatable hero who's always more skilled than every incompetent bad guy," and triumphs over said bad guys in the end. Those are all cliches. Then again, that describes about 99% of all big budget action flicks, many of which receive high critical praise. Alita does feature a few mild plot twists and ends bittersweet, the latter of which I've always seen as more representative of real life. But the original source material was never about a twisting plot. Gunnm/Battle Angel always had depth of character and story but was never very philosophical. The manga and Anime consisted of a relatable story and a lot of excitement and emotion. Multiple times throughout the Anime when I first saw it, I was thinking things like "that was so incredibly smart and cool what she just did" and "that was a hefty dose of blood and gore for a work of animation" or "I can't believe he just killed that character like that..." For specifics, see the Spoilers section below.

Otherwise, I'm glad I saw the movie in 3D on IMAX. The 3D added depth to the city and motorball competition. However, I actually don't think the movie needs to be seen in 3D because of everything else that the movie has to offer other than the special effects.

All in all, I would rate Alita 9/10 = 4.5/5 stars. The movie is not perfect, but it's about as perfect as a big budget Hollywood movie gets in the current age of mindless superhero special effects.

Critical Reception

If you are considering going to see Alita, do not--I repeat, DO NOT--listen to any of the critics who are bashing this movie. And objectively, don't listen to the ones praising it or me, either. Go see it and judge for yourself.

As of the time of this writing, Alita had a 60% or so score on Rotten Tomatoes (RT), but the movie is so much better than that. It really deserves 90% or better. To paraphrase the RT consensus, "the story struggles to keep up with the action and special effects." Bullshit. At the VERY least, the story is as good or better than any Marvel or DC movie, most of which somehow get a thumbs up from the majority of critics. As I said, Alita herself is endearing, her romance with Hugo is touching, and the action and special effects serve a well-rounded story true to the source material.

One reason for the lower-than-deserved ratings is that a movie like Alita is held to a different standard than Marvel/DC, Disney, and other similar movies. It's understood that an American comic book movie starring superheroes with supernatural powers ill-explained by weak pseudo-science is meant purely for entertainment. Such flicks aren't to be taken seriously. We all know the good guys are going to fight the bad guys and win in the end. Simply turn your brain off. As long as it's a fun ride, thumbs up! But Alita is different.

After reading many of the individual critics' reviews on RT, I can only conclude that the naysayers are not smart enough to follow the plot/story or empathetic enough to relate to the characters. They clearly aren't familiar with the source material and prefer cheesy, thoughtless entertainment like Guardians of the Galaxy (if you've read my previous posts, you know how often I bash that atrocious movie and its even more atrocious sequel, which together define the epitome of horrible yet highly praised film making).

More and more these days, it seems like critics just try to turn clever phrases in their reviews without saying anything of substance. They completely fail to apply any sort of objective analysis that might, you know, actually review the movie. One reviewer focused on Alita's breasts. Really? There is precisely zero focus put on the breasts of the main character in the movie. Alita's creators could've given her an oversized bust like--oh I don't know--every superheroine in every American comic book. But they didn't. Go figure.

Another thing to consider is that many of the critics who gave Alita low marks probably wouldn't have rated the source material any higher.

Now that opening weekend for the movie has passed, I've been paying attention to the box office numbers. Yes, that's how much I like Alita. I simply don't pay that close of attention to most other things. The main reason I care is because I want to see the sequels get made. The movie's budget was estimated at $170+ million. I'm not clear on all the extra costs above and beyond the base budget, but supposedly the movie needs to make $500+ million for the movie studio to break even. Alita was the top-grossing movie over opening weekend, and international sales have been solid, but Alita still has a long way to go to rake in half a billion bucks. As much as I love Alita and its source material, I still see it as something of a niche concept, a cult classic that only a select few unbiased and savvy people can appreciate. I'm glad the studio greenlighted the movie, but I'm surprised they risked that much money. Only with Cameron as producer did it happen.

But back to the tiresome critics. Tell me the general premise and what studio produced the movie, and I can guess with very high accuracy the overall score on RT. An Adam Sandler comedy? Max 60%, and that's his higher rated stuff. His humor just isn't for everyone. Any Disney movie? 80-90% or more. Disney can do no wrong in the eyes of critics, even though all they do is tug at our heartstrings using the same format in every movie.

I've grown weary of the critics and their trite, predictable subjectivity. I'm neither entertained nor impressed by their craftily worded fluff. Want to know if a movie's any good? Read the synopsis, watch the previews, read up on the source material, go see it if it seems like someone you would like, and draw your own conclusions. Here's what the critics don't want you to know: you can judge a movie as well as they can. I mean, they critique movies for a living. It takes more skill to take an order, get that order correct, and bring the check out at the end. Seriously.

Alita's Big Eyes

Leading up to the release of Ghost in the Shell (2017), people got all bent out of shape about the whitewashing of the main character, the Major (in case you don't know, whitewashing means casting a Caucasian actress in the role of a non-Caucasian main character, supposedly allowing an American audience to better relate to the character). Similarly, numerous comments have been made about Alita's big Anime eyes. To recap, Alita's creators gave her oversized eyes to match her look in the comic and generally capture the work's Anime origins. Before I saw the movie, I felt the eye controversy had two sides.

First and foremost, shame on each and every bigot who finds the large eyes creepy. It's human nature to be wary of things that are different from us, but it's that sort of thinking that has led to race and other hate crimes in the real world today. "Oh, no. Her eyes are too big and creepy! No human being in a mainstream American movie should have eyes that big!" To me, that sounds an awful lot like, "Oh, no. Her skin is too dark! Maybe she should use a segregated bathroom, ride at the back of the bus, and be a slave!" If that sounds a bit over the top to you, you're wrong. It's not. It's the exact same mentality. Really, who cares if she has large eyes? People in the real world look all kinds of different. Get over it and accept it.

Conversely, giving Alita big eyes struck me as a questionable marketing decision. Let's be honest. The backlash wasn't in any way surprising. Human nature can't be denied. Haters are gonna hate (damn, I hate that overused phrase), not go see the movie because she seems creepy or cartoony, and cost Hollywood money. I could understand the creators insisting on the large eyes to maintain artistic integrity if--and only IF--the big eyes were a part of the PLOT of the manga and/or Anime. However, that's not the case. The Gunnm/Battle Angel manga happens to be drawn in the Anime style, so Alita happens to have big Anime eyes. There's nothing in the STORY about anyone having big eyes.

The decision to make Alita's eyes big was a creative decision by the film's director and producers. Alita is originally Anime, so they wanted to make her look Anime. To me, that reasoning is flawed. Giving Alita normal sized eyes might've given her a more badass and adult look. She is the Battle Angel, after all. She's a badass hunter-warrior, so the large, cartoony eyes might contradict that perception. Also, from a fiscal perspective, think about how much money it cost to render Alita's eyes and overall CGI look in every single frame of the movie. If they had avoided doing that, the movie would've cost less money, have more chance of recouping the studio's investment, and be more likely to get its sequels. Making sure Alita: Battle Angel (2019) isn't a solo act is the main reason why I wouldn't have spent all that money rendering her appearance.

Now, after seeing the movie, I think the visual effects supervisors did a very good job blending Alita's eyes and overall CGI look with the rest of the live action movie. Except for a handful of frames where her eyes seemed an inconsistent size, I thought Alita looked damn cool. Thus, everyone's concern about the big eyes was much ado about nothing. Seriously. When you start watching the movie, you will quickly forget all about her eyes.

Comparison to Source Material (Spoilers)

Skip this section unless you've seen the Alita movie. If you've seen it, this is the fun section where I'll talk about how the Alita movie specifically compares to the source material.

There were a number of elements missing from the movie that appeared in the Anime or manga. Had Alita's creators included those elements, it would've rounded out the plot and story better.

The first thing missing from the movie is Hugo's backstory about his brother. In the Anime (and I think in the manga, too, although I don't presently recall), Hugo tells Alita the story of how his older brother built a hot air balloon to try to get to Zalem. As we know, guns, flying vehicles, and anything that could threaten Zalem's power are illegal in Iron City. The brother's wife becomes jealous of her husband's dream, thinking that he might just build the balloon, head to Zalem, and abandon her. Thus, she informs the factory of his transgression. A hunter-warrior shows up and kills Hugo's brother--chops off his head--in front of Hugo and the wife. Before the brother dies, he instills the dream of getting to Zalem in Hugo, and that's why Hugo turns to a life of crime to do whatever it takes to get to Zalem. He'll do anything to fulfill his late brother's dream. This personal motivation and conflict humanize the Hugo character and drives a story. If this backstory had been present in the movie, it would've helped silence some of the negative feedback.

In the movie, Zapan, a hunter-warrior, tries to kill Hugo. But in the Anime, the same hunter-warrior who killed Hugo's brother also tries to kill Hugo. To me, the combination of the brother backstory feeding Hugo's motivation to get to Zalem and the same assassin also going after Hugo rounds out the plot in a way that the movie lacks. In the Anime, the situation is so much more personal. Aside from the storytelling aspects, I really missed the cool factor of how Alita kills Hugo's assassin in the movie. In the Anime, Alita generates an electric charge in the atmosphere with her body, sets up the assassin as a lightning rod, and zaps him with a big bolt of lightning from the sky. Now, I can understand if Alita's creators didn't see that as overly realistic, but it was still super cool. It would've been interesting to see it happen on the big screen.

Another storytelling aspect missing from the movie relates to Alita's fight with Grewishka, the big dude who she beats and then gets rebuilt. In the manga, when Alita chases Grewishka down the hole in the bar floor, she does so because Grewishka kidnaps a young girl (I can't remember if the girl is the daughter of the bar owner, but that doesn't matter too much for the purposes of this discussion). Alita charging to the rescue makes her that much more endearing and adds a concreate reason why she needs to pursue Grewishka. Otherwise, the battle is just a matter of pride. She could choose not to go after him.

What came as no surprise was that the movie left out most of the tech talk from the manga. In many instances where Alita goes to battle, or when any two characters fight each other, Kishiro gives scientific explanations for why a particular weapon or fighting move works. Given that most of the characters doing the fighting are cybernetically enhanced, they have abilities beyond that of a flesh-and-blood human. The fact that Kishiro takes the time to work out how such abilities might actually be possible lends credence and believability to the story. Kishiro will sometimes go as far as to list the amount of Joules of energy a weapon or move generates. Believe it or not, the original Gunnm manga is a work of hard science fiction. I didn't expect much tech talk in the movie, especially given the target audience of, well, everyone. The tech talk is largely absent from the Anime, too. That said, the movie does sneak in very brief tech talk, such as when Alita holds up the blue flame on the tip of her finger.

Okay, I know the following is a sore subject for pet lovers and PETA members. However, I must shower Alita's creators with praise for including the scene where Grewishka kills Alita's dog. Naturally, in a movie rated PG-13, and given the expected outrage from animal activists, we don't actually see the dog get killed. The kill happens off the screen and is therefore only implied. Why have I always loved the dog-killing scene in the source material? It's not that I want any harm to come to any animal; I'd be as horrified as the next person if it happened right in front of me in real life. I'm also no connoisseur of blood and gore. I only care to see that stuff when it's in service to the story. However, there's just something about a bad guy performing such a heinous act of brutality that pulls me that much deeper into the story. The murder of a cute, innocent pet is a major wrong that needs to be righted. So when Alita finally kills Grewishka, the victory is that much sweeter. Ironically, the source material is much more graphic than the live action movie. The Anime, and I believe also the manga, show Grewishka rip apart the dog with his retractable finger cutters. Canine intestines go flying. Blood splatters everywhere. Saddened and enraged, Alita kneels, drags her finger through the blood, and wipes the blood beneath her eyes. In anger, she snarls that she accepts Grewishka's challenge to fight. Due to the extreme graphic nature of this scene, the emotion hits the audience hard in the source material. Sometimes, people need to see and feel an atrocity, gore and all, to get the full impact. To generate a true moving experience, you have to go there, even if it's appalling. Now...no dogs were hurt in real life, so stay calm. It's fiction. All in all, the source material handles this scene much better than the movie, but props to Alita's creators for doing the scene at all.

Obvious to anyone who's read the manga is that the sport of motorball is introduced much sooner in the movie. In the manga, Alita signs up for motorball after Hugo dies. She needs an outlet for her grief. The Anime only consists of two episodes less than 30 minutes each; the second episode ends with Hugo's death. Therefore, we never see motorball in the Anime (Grewishka and others fight in an ill-explained arena in the Anime). One area in which I think the movie may surpass the source material is how the movie pulls motorball forward and makes the sport more central to the overall story. I loved how Alita initially plays motorball with some kids on the street. She isn't very good at first. But after a few rounds, she improves quickly. If Alita had joined the official motorball competition without any prior experience, her instant success would've been hard to swallow. I would've liked to have seen the movie go deeper into motorball, watch Alita compete more, learn the rules, etc. But in a movie that moves at a lightning pace, cramming 7 graphic novel volumes into 2 hours, Alita's motorball progression seems about right.

Let's not forget that the manga has its fair share of cheesy dialog and moments. Sometimes, characters can seem ridiculous or act ridiculously (don't get me started on the obnoxious silliness of Alita's two twin clones in Last Order). Typical Anime exuberance is sometimes present in Gunnm, like when a character's mouth is drawn larger than their head as they scream. I see that as par for the course in comics and Anime. For a big budget Hollywood movie, I thought Alita's creators did an above average job of limiting the cheesy dialog. In Hollywood movies, there's often one or more instances in which a main character delivers a one-liner in the aftermath of some crazy event. "That's gonna leave a mark." Ugh. Many people probably think it's a cool line, but usually the line is misplaced and ruins the tension. Such phrases break one of the cardinal rules of fiction: understatement is more powerful than overstatement. Sentiments like "she was speechless, too upset to scream or cry" are almost always more compelling than having the character actually scream or cry (except when it makes perfect sense to do so). Counter-intuitively, the former conveys more emotion and gravity than the latter.

With that in mind, I really dislike the movie's main tag line: "I do not stand by in the presence of evil." That line is never, ever--not once at any time--uttered in the manga or Anime. What was the point of that line? We see Alita taking a stand against the people who take advantage of others and control the city. Her not standing by is shown, so the line doesn't need to be said. Moreover, Alita is a story of survival. At least one character in the movie states that the city brings out the worst in people. It's not a story of good versus evil. It's a story of can and cannot. People who can take advantage of others do. Those who cannot protect themselves become prey. It's not a matter of good and evil. It's a case of practical reality, survival of the fittest, etc. That's closer to real life. Reducing the plot to black and white good versus evil through this phrase thereby reduces the movie to a trite, straightforward superhero story. Good thing that this is the only bad tag line. The rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

Characters uttered few, if any, curse words in Alita. The exception is one of the best uses of an F-bomb in recent memory. After Grewishka tears apart Alita's body and has nearly beaten her, she gathers her strength, says F-you, and stabs him in the eye with her only remaining limb. As badass action goes, it's pretty sweet.

Wow, you actually read to the end? I could keep going, but this review is more than long enough. Go see the movie already!

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