The Best Anime Adaptation is Still Miles Ahead of its Competitors

Don’t overcomplicate things. Just give Christoph Waltz a really big hammer.

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“I want to show you a live-action anime adaptation” is the easiest way to repel dweebs at Comic-Con, and there’s a good reason they react to Dragonball Evolution like vampires facing a crucifix. The anime to live-action pipeline isn’t so much a cinematic Nord Stream as a handful of rotting pool noodles hastily duct-taped together, springing nonstop leaks until the product that finally emerges is a sad little dribble of what could have been.

There are many reasons movies like Ghost in the Shell and Death Note fail to find an audience — they make bizarre casting decisions, they fundamentally misunderstand their source material, God is punishing us — but their inability to trust their audience is an underappreciated factor. Many an adaptation of a dense manga has fallen victim to the dreaded lore dump, the moment when reams of information are explained with all the grace of a fumbling sex-ed class. The result is a world that isn’t so much built as shotgunned in the viewer’s general direction.

Adaptations of dorky novels and games struggle with this too, but the bad habit is so endemic to anime and manga that it must feel natural to bring it to Hollywood. That’s one reason Alita: Battle Angel, based on Yukito Kishiro’s epic manga series, is such a relief to watch. Set in a vaguely cyberpunk city centuries after a war caused “The Fall,” that baker’s dozen of words are all you need to hop into the story of Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) repairing an old cyborg he finds on a scrapheap. Alita, as Ido dubs her, has no memory of her past, but plenty of curiosity about her present.

Admittedly, Alita is a disjointed film. Alita (a delightful Rosa Salazar) meets plucky simp Hugo (Keean Johnson) and learns the citizens of Iron City are obsessed with Motorball, a free-for-all roller derby contested by vicious cyborgs. The appeal is obvious, both because of the cyborg violence and because the prize money is one of the few ways for Iron City’s miscellaneous ragamuffins to get a leg-up. The sport’s champions are even invited to Zalem, a wealthy neighborhood in the sky that looms over Iron City’s huddled masses.

Lest you think this is some sort of anime Rocky, Alita also learns the soft-spoken Dr. Ido is secretly a bounty hunter, and that her body has provided her with instinctive knowledge of a lost fighting art, both facts that come in handy when the duo are attacked by a gang of vicious killers. They’re out for Alita’s high-tech head on the orders of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a Motorball maven and Zalem’s representative on Earth. Alita must respond to this threat by simultaneously honing herself into a killing machine and all-star athlete, as you do.

Alita doesn’t lean into Iron City’s Latin American setting, but it’s still a fun change of pace.

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That may all sound a bit complicated, but Alita is also remarkably constrained, at least by the standards of a big-budget sci-fi where Christoph Waltz wields a so-called rocket hammer. Alita experiences brief flashbacks to her old life, but while weaker movies would use these to expound on the history of the conflict that caused our doom, Battle Angel gives you a second to realize Alita was once a soldier, then moves on. Kishiro’s manga has the full story if you want it, but you don’t need to know or care to appreciate Alita’s cinematic journey.

Most worldbuilding details are handled with the same level of trust, which makes learning about Iron City alongside Alita a joy, not a slog. Oh, you’ll still have to absorb your fair share of future slang — hearing Christoph Waltz say “Panzer-Kunst” with a Shakespearian tenor is worth your time alone — but it’s a gentle stream, not a strangling torrent.

None of this would be worth mentioning if the action wasn’t any good, but there’s a reason Robert Rodriguez wound up directing. Body parts detach with remarkable ease as Alita graduates from anime ingenue to twee death ball, and they rarely go willingly. That many of Alita’s rivals have been chromed out beyond recognition is one of the film’s more effective genre touches, and one that ensures the fighting stays weird. Most mainstream sci-fi limits futuristic body modification to the odd cyborg arm; here, a face is often the only part of a character still recognizably human. A movie that features both a villain with harpoon hands and a pack of cyborg German shepherds is one committed to its vision of the future.

One of Alita’s relatively restrained pursuers.

20th Century Fox

Together, this all mostly works. The sports movie elements never quite gel with all the cyborg butchery, and the script sometimes stumbles over its own winsome sincerity, but Alita is still a wildly fun ride accessible to the non-manga dork masses. Producer and co-writer James Cameron had wanted to make Alita since 2000, and that long delay may help explain its mixed reception; cyberpunk elements that would have looked fresh then, were cliches by 2019. But modern technology was needed to properly bring Iron City to life, and while the demands of Pandora made Cameron give up the director’s chair, his knack for presenting a wild but immediately accessible future remains on display.

Alita ends on a blatant sequel tease, and with that long-gestating follow-up now supposedly in the works, we can only hope Cameron and Rodriguez show similar storytelling restraint in any future installments. Go full-hog with the cyborg dismemberment, sure. But at a time when every franchise mistakes slopping lore into our mouths for storytelling, we don’t need to learn that the mercenary Alita just sliced atwain actually had a tragic backstory that will tie into a future plot twist. All Alita wants to do is rock at Motorball and enact bloody revenge. What more do you need to know?

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