It seems likely that an enthusiastic young cohort of moviegoers is going to look back on Alita: Battle Angel with a distinct fondness, that ridiculously committed cosplayers are going to strap on purple exoskeleton armor and mock-up glowing plasma swords at many a con to come. I try not to be a cynic about new movies, but seeing a CG-fest headlined by James Cameron, based on anime, right on the heels of one very poorly received entry from that genre, I was ready to hear some familiar laments from fans.
Thus far, Alita has garnered mixed reviews. I agree with our own Oktay Ege Kozak’s review, which points out some considerable imperfections in this story of a mysterious cyborg girl learning her purpose in life. There’s a lot of borrowed furniture from pillars of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cinema like Blade Runner and Mad Max, and the eponymous heroine’s love interest is such a mediocre bore that you wonder why on Earth a young lady with a résumé as impressive as Alita’s is ready to literally hand him her heart.
Yet, Rotten Tomatoes gives it an audience score of 94 percent as of this writing, way out of proportion with the muddled reviews, and Twitter has plenty to say on the matter.
The common thread running through a lot of the praise seems to be that the story of a little cyborg girl finding her purpose in life is pretty cool when her purpose in life is to rip and tear through robot assassins, a promise director Robert Rodriguez manages to deliver on while also giving us great performances, real heart, and a somewhat faithful (if very busy) adaptation of the source material.
Adapting the successful manga Gunnm, with a lot of narrative structure taken from an hour-long , two-part 1993 anime adaptation, Alita: Battle Angel is also receiving a lot of love from beleaguered fans of anime who are calling it a faithful adaptation. It is certainly somewhat more faithful than others have been, especially in light of the fact that time and again, we see terrible live-action adaptations, or just the looming threat of them.
We’ve written here at Paste about why some anime adaptations are just futile to begin with. Besides that thorough analysis of why Ghost in the Shell resists adaptation, you could just as easily point to the proposed Akira adaptation of a few years ago.
The bizarre choice to set that Akira adaptation in the United States and to make it vaguely be about 9/11 was tone-deaf cultural misappropriation of the highest order that would require a whole other article to break down, but suffice it to say: Akira the anime film is a story grounded in the existential malaise of a rapidly industrializing 1980s Japan in the midst of major socioeconomic changes, all in the wake of the fear of nuclear disaster. It’s not a milieu that easily lends itself to a palette swap in the way that, let’s say, the Edo Period and the Wild West so often do.
Hollywood so often goes directly for the simplest and least challenging path to adapting stories, despite mountains of evidence that more daring adaptation (and thus more heartfelt movies) are the ones that folks are more likely to support. Blade Runner takes little more than the germ of its idea from the original novel, not even bothering to take its ungainly title. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is a particular and unique interpretation of Batman and conquered genre fiction while it was running.