The concept of Japanese properties being adapted for Western cinema has always been one fraught with peril - most attempts are roundly ridiculed for their failure to remain loyal to the source material, as Dragonball Evolution was, or destined to silently slip into obscurity, as is the case with Gary Daniels' adaptation of Fist of the North Star and the Nicolas Cage-led animated take on Astro Boy.
James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez aim to challenge the current status quo with Alita: Battle Angel, a project that has slipped in and out of development hell for roughly the past two decades and perhaps the most ambitious of its ilk. This does not aim to adapt any massive, world-renowned names in the field of manga to the silver screen - rather, it is a take on Gunnm, rendered as Battle Angel Alita overseas, a long-running yet only modestly well-known science fiction title revolving around the eponymous amnesiac cyborg and her quest to discover her past. Given Cameron's firm grounding in the field of science-fiction, it was a natural choice, and Rodriguez is certainly no stranger to the genre either. Ardent fans watched its development with keen interest, scouting the internet for whispers, and after trailers finally came on the scene last year, interest was swiftly piqued. It was an audacious take on a unique tale, and on a personal level I was intrigued to see how it would pan out.
In one aspect, it goes above and beyond the films that came before. Cameron and to a lesser extent Rodriguez have prided themselves on visual spectacle, from the tenebrous depths of The Abyss to the exotic climes of Pandora in Avatar to Rodgriguez's own bombastic turn in Machete, and this is no exception. Alita is a technical marvel as a film, this cannot be questioned, and every environment depicted on screen feels lived-in and even realistic in ways, much as the film constantly reminds you that most of it consists of actors cavorting about in front of a green screen. This realism similarly extends to Alita herself, her artificial body seeming wholly genuine and rendered in exquisitely beautiful detail, enabling the viewer to see every movement, drink in every pore and analyse every minute detail of her frame and every intricate engraving that decorates it. Similar detail is afforded to other characters, particularly Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley, looking equally impressive and unnerving as two of the numerous bounty hunters that Alita encounters. From the cyborgs to the titanic floating city of Zalem to the peculiar sport of Motorball, a bizarre hybrid of rollerskating, basketball and rugby, there is an undeniable passion residing within the visuals. With regards to capturing the feeling of cyberpunk, of an ancient Earth, of cybernetics and wonderous technology, the film is almost nonpareil, and it is probably the most faithful adaptation of any Japanese series purely from a visual and effects-based perspective, and the cinematography, at times, is top-notch to match, be it through sweeping shots of the faded remains of humanity's former glory, the imposing shadow of floating cities, or slow-motion lulls in hyperactive fight scenes.
Unfortunately, there is an acute over-reliance on spectacle of the same sort that plagued Avatar, and the end result of this is a feature that is almost the dictionary definition of a mile wide and an inch deep, a narrative that looks spectacular but is rushed and ultimately unfulfilling, a tired retread of a generic story that everyone has seen enough of, concluding on blatant and shameless sequel bait. It's a shame that the passion pouring forth from the visuals does not extend to the script, an often awkward, clunky and fast-paced mess bloated with predictable dialogue and plot beats as it tries to cram four separate story arcs of the manga into its own thing, something rather dismaying coming partly from Laeta Kalogridis, writer and creator of genuinely thought-provoking works in Shutter Island and Altered Carbon - perhaps she simply works better with original material. Although it does its damndest to adapt the contents of its source material in a satisfying manner, that still does little to ameliorate the entire story coming across as some latecomer to the young adult novel trend, yet another yarn about a free-spirited individual rising up against an oppressive system - one particularly bizarre scene stands out wherein Alita delivers an exceptionally clunky speech to a gathering of bounty hunters that comes so out of left field that even the characters are left scoffing and performing double-takes. There is a chance missed, too, for some timely if worn commentary on the business of haves and have-nots, a message reinforced visually when comparing the towering majesty of Zalem to the squalor of Iron City below, but instead the film is seemingly content with not saying much of anything. Perhaps such a message would be taking liberties with the source material, and if the intention was to deliver Gunnm to the screen in its purest form then that is understandable - but even saying something obvious is better than saying nothing at all.
The action, at least, is stellar, a category that passes with flying colours alongside the visuals. The sequences on offer are fast, dynamic, sleek and well-crafted, and with many of the combatants being cybernetic in nature that affords more variety in the action on offer - hits are harder, weaponry more creative, takedowns more brutal and inventive. Metal meets metal with vicious intensity and all sorts of technological doodads, from jet-propelled scythes to energised blades, are brought to the forefront. However, as solid as the action is, and as accurate as the depiction of said action is in carrying the flow of the manga, action without a compelling and impactful narrative cannot carry a film on its own.
All else is merely passable. The score fails to make an impact. The cast, with the exception of the genuinely passionate and magnetic Salazar who gives it her all - as much as the script permits her to, at least - is either woefully underutilised with rising stars like Mahershala Ali and veteran performers like Christoph Waltz criminally overlooked, or virtually non-existent. Combined with the cumbersome script and slapdah pacing and all of this leaves behind a film that excels at being a spectacle for its two-hour run-time, and sadly not much else. Even with Cameron's name attached, with Alita being related to a fundamentally niche property, time will tell if this will reap any rewards, but for most, it will register as little more than a two-hour blizzard of action, odd dialogue exchanges and well-crafted visuals, with little in the way of a lasting impression having been left - save for perhaps serving as a cautionary notice that, even if there is certainly passion to be found here, no-one can do Japanese quite like the Japanese.