Way back in 2003 I was reading an article in Animerica about all the anime/manga titles being looked at by Hollywood, with options already out on Akira, Dragonball, Evangelion, Speed Racer, Kite, Ghost in the Shell, and Alita. Since then its been a long and arduous road for many of those to be realized and resulted in things which were interesting failures (Speed Racer) to downright dismal (Dragonball) to the fact some drug addled producer thought Kite was a good idea to remake (it wasn’t, the original Kite is garbage). We finally get the release of Alita after all this time, including two prominent delays, which seeks to further dig into the questions- is it possible to even make a live-action anime that’s decent?
Alita has one thing going for it the rest didn’t in James Cameron. While the others saw a rotating cycle of attached directors working for hire being pushed along by a production company looking to cash in Alita has always been Cameron’s baby, he was attached from the beginning and has been the single driving force behind it even after giving up directing duties to Robert Rodriguez so there’s more of a unified vision and a sense of fidelity that the other’s lack. It’s second biggest advantage is its rather simple story, in a future where most of the world was wiped out in a great war and only one giant floating city remains with a bunch of lower class refugees surviving on its scraps a Dr Ido (Christoph Walz) find a cyborg core which he rebuilds in a girl he names Alita. She has amnesia which is a convenient excuse for a lot of world building exposition and unfortunately results in a lot of world building exposition early on as she goes around learning things and falling in love with Hugo (Generic Disney White Bread #5). Quickly though she finds out there are a lot of bad people in the city who she doesn’t like and the movie starts burning through plot as she variously clashes with Marhesha Ali, Jennifer Connolly, Ed Skrein, and Jackie Earl Harley. It’s a pretty straight forward sci-fi action set-up without being saddled by the attempts at philosophy of Ghost in the Shell or any kind of deep character development.
After that slow start this is where the movie starts to shine through and Rodriguez can start to feel comfortable. There is a lot of action here and the fight scenes are clearly laid out while still looking impressively super-human. Moreover, the effects on the host of cyborgs in the city is generally good, you get lots of human heads attached to metal bodies and they don’t stick out as much as you would think even as the fighting gets intense. The big question mark, and the reason for a pair of delays pushing this back to a February release, is Alita’s face. Originally done with much bigger eyes in an attempt to mimic the manga art there was a massive pushback which caused a lot of additional post-production work to tame down. For the most part its successful now, from even a slight distance or during heavy action its not noticeable. The only real catch comes in close ups, especially when Alita laughs, which impressively manages to somehow create an uncanny valley effect in a live action movie. With how strong the rest of the special effects are and the overall visual design its a small enough blip to quickly move past.
The acting is a little rougher. Rosa Salazar does well as Alita and Walz kills it with Dr Ido becoming a father figure. Past that it gets rough, Disney White Bread is better than the commercials made him out to be but is still saddled with a lot of clumsy lines and a part in a romance subplot which is kind of forced with how fast things are moving. Ali and Connolly suffer the worst as they frequently get the hardest lines to sell so they can be much more over the place.
Overall though it works. Like, this is legitimately a good movie, something I never thought I would say about a live-action anime. Its fast paced with a lot of cool action, especially when it gets to its Rollarball knock-off Motorball, and doesn’t bother trying to be something its not.