It has become a tale as old as time in Hollywood, studio bigwigs stumble across an untapped prospect that was successful in a different country or, perhaps, in a different medium, and decide they want to adapt it on the big-screen. This isn’t inherently a bad idea and it isn’t something I think should be discouraged, instead, it’s an idea that makes a lot of sense. The world is filled with talented storytellers and not only will this bring attention and new awareness to the source material, it allows the narrative to unravel in new perspectives and in-front of eyes that other-wise might never have experienced something like Alita: Battle Angel.
It isn’t a perfect marriage and where a lot of lingering issues arise is from consolidating what a mainstream studio wants and what a film actually is. The Ghost in the Shell drew criticism of racism and white-washing for casting Scarlett Johansson. Whether it, in-fact, was racism and white-washing is a subject for debate. Personally, I think a lot of reason why it was ever green-lit and brought to the big-screen is because of Scarlett’s involvement in-general. They brought Scarlett on because they thought her established popularity in films like Lucy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe would help sell a property that was otherwise unknown stateside. As many of you know, that didn’t work. Similar to adaptations of your favorite video-games, it appears the United States (and Japan, to be fair) haven’t cracked the code on the right formula to approach adapting manga and anime for the mainstream moviegoers.
Alita: Battle Angel was a different beast. The 2019 cyberpunk action film adapts the 1990s manga series Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro in a high-budget film directed by Robert Rodriguez with a screenplay written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. The film was also produced by Cameron, a name that I wouldn’t be surprised to find was very important for how this film was able to be made with its price-tag and the lesser known Rosa Salazar in the lead role. The film was originally announced in 2003, but had been in development hell since 2003, especially with James Cameron striking gold with Avatar, and in a way, it’s no small miracle the film came to exist at all.
The film was released early 2019 to mixed reviews from critics and a positive and vocal acclaim from genre fans and casual-viewers alike. Unfortunately, calling the film a successful undertaking is more a story of the almost was, than a reflection of what actually happened. The film brought in 400 dollars at the worldwide box-office, which, on first glance, is good. Damn good, in-fact. The film had a warm reaction on both fronts, especially from moviegoers, and for an adaptation of a 20-something year old manga to make nearly half-a-billion dollars is certainly a cause for celebration. That is, until you realize the production budget for Alita: Battle Angel was a whopping 170 million dollars (accounting for the 30 million they received in tax-incentive) and the marketing budget would have no doubt ballooned costs closer to 250 million.
The film brought in about 85 million in the United States, a total that isn’t ideal for such an expensive film. Although the foreign market is no doubt more present than ever in the industry, the domestic market remains the most lucrative among them. The film went onto make over 130 million in China (the second biggest market), a healthy return that comes with an asterisk when you consider the studio will only receive about 30 million of that (or 25% of the market share), an enormous difference from what it would have been if they would have made that money in the United States. A lot of analysts and publications have thrown around numbers for what Alita needed to be considered a success, but all of them have a wide-margin for error because of how each different territory reacts. The only certainty we do know is that Alita: Battle Angel did not make enough from its worldwide box-office to break-even and justify a sequel.
This isn’t the end of the world, and, in-fact, there’s an important lesson we can take from this if we want to see it. Alita more than doubled what Ghost in the Shell wanted, all while achieving something genre fans actually enjoyed. It shows there is a market for these films that will show up in droves if they feel the film is worth their time of day. Maybe Disney (Fox) will look at these numbers, look at the home-video sales and streaming sales and so on, and decide there’s a future for Alita, after all. Albeit, without such a hefty price-tag attached. I think the lesson to learn is that there’s mileage here if companies are willing to do it right, but, maybe, that mileage begins by learning to walk before you run.
The story is set 300 years after the Earth was nearly decimated by an interplanetary war, as scientist Dr. Dyson Ido uncovers a disembodied female cyborg with a brain still intact. Dr. Ido equips the brain to a new cyborg body and names her after his deceased daughter “Alita,” establishing a fatherly bond with her. Soon, Alita discovers the ugly-side of the world around her, where cyborgs are stripped for parts and the dreary, desolate city corrupts even the best of them. This can be seen front-and-center with Hugo, a boy Alita befriends and becomes smitten with, that is desperate to ascend to the wealthy sky city of Zalem no matter the cost. This includes selling stolen parts to a man named Vector, owner of a tournament where winners can procure entry into the city of Zalem by laying Motorball, a battle royale racing sport played by cyborg gladiators. When Alita follows Dr. Ido, she discovers his involvement as a bounty hunter and comes face-to-face with a cyborg serial-killer named Grewishka. The film sees her doing anything she can to stop him and uncovering the darker inner-workings that happen within their world.
It’s definitely a busy film to say the least, jam-packed with lore and world-building action. Although the characters can vary between over-the-top archetypes or can sometimes feel as though they’re meant as fodder for Alita, the ones that matter deliver most. Christoph Waltz delivers as a protective man in-search of what was lost in a broken world and Rosa Salazar is charming and likable as the bad-ass warrior.
The action-scenes are fun and kinetic, making for a special-effects extravaganza with “blink and you miss it” attention to detail.
If you were to break it down to the basic meat and potatoes of Alita: Battle Angel, I won’t deny there are complaints to be made about the film. It suffers from certain aspects often found in origin stories, where it has, as said, archetype characters meant mostly to be conquered by the unproven protagonist. Ed Skrein’s character in the film fits the bill in that respect. Many might interpret Alita’s story as muddied, as well, merely because of how much is wedged in the film. It isn’t an unfair opinion to have. There’s so much stuffed into this film that the breezy, speedy pace was more a necessity than a style choice, with the film still clocking out beyond the two-hour mark. It’s easy to say this film glosses over certain developments or feel as though it isn’t as self-contained as ideal.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a two-hour film that never drags and is never dull, opting instead to engorge itself with as much as it can, having to fight to keep it from bursting out the seams. It might make the argument of why Alita isn’t necessarily a great film, but the fact that it’s bleak, yet colorful visuals and engrossing world are entertaining from start to finish make it a film that’s difficult to resist.
It’s a film that leaves you wanting more, direct and transparent about its intentions at launching a string of films, and that is a lot of the reason why I spent so much of this review talking about its box-office prospects (that, and you know, my pointless obsession). This feels like the first chapter in the Battle Angel, and it’s unfortunate we won’t be able to see where she goes next. As far as whether this is the first “good” live-action adaptation of a manga or animated, I won’t be so bold as to dismiss every film I haven’t seen. What I will say though, is that Alita: Battle Angel is a fast-paced action science-fiction film I recommend and would love to see followed up on.