What We Loved (No, Really) About Alita Battle Angel

Image: Alita: Battle Angel (20th Century Fox)

Alita Battle Angel is an adaptation of the beloved Gunmm  manga, and it’s a movie where everything that could happen in a movie happens. It’s got fights, a fake sport, a romance, and at the center of it all an amnesiac cyborg and her adoptive dad. I sat down with Tim Rogers to talk about all the things we unexpectedly loved about this movie.

Gita Jackson: Hey Tim! I don’t know what you expected when you went to the theater to see Alita Battle Angel, but I wasn’t expecting much. What I saw completely blew me away and motivated me to immediately buy the manga. I think we talked about this before the movie came out, but were you expecting this movie to be as good as it was?

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Tim Rogers: I was expecting it to be, at the very least, generally not bad and additionally, uh, something I personally was going to like! I mean, I have a pretty excellent track record for knowing I’m going to like something. Usually this involves a complex variety of factors, though every once in a while I see a thing that some people around me are hating on and I decide to put on my Good Time Hat and go in ready to love it. I feel like I saw a lot of people hating on it for like a year before it came out. People were yellin’ about her eyes being too big in that first trailer. Around then I had a feeling like, “I am pretty sure I’m going to like this no matter what.”

Gita: Well we’re both director Robert Rodriguez fans, right? I was definitely skeptical when I saw production stills, but I was willing to give it a shot. I really enjoyed From Dusk Till Dawn, El Mariachi and Sin City, so I felt like I owed him at least a viewing.

Tim: I’ve gotta say, I liked El Mariachi when it was playing at the arts theater in Indiana in 1993, though I’ve honestly sorta mostly disliked everything I saw by him after that. I just think From Dusk Till Dawn is a disaster start to finish, and Sin City is a nightmare. I do like Planet Terror, though! That lady has a gun for a leg!

Gita: Planet Terror was super fun. I kinda wanted to watch that right after I got out of Alita.

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Tim: Yeah, I like that idiotic movie.

Gita: It’s out of control and knows it’s out of control, so the stakes get so cartoonishly high. Just pure fun. I feel like that’s why I liked Alita so much. It had the tone of a CW show, but one where people get their limbs cut off.

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Tim: Yeah, I saw your tweet about that! “It’s like Blade Runner if it were a CW show.”

Might I propose this, though: CW shows are just live-action 1990s animes on TV in the 2010s. So I’m saying with Alita it was either that CW texture or bust, imo.

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Gita: You read Gunnm right? How does the movie compare?

Tim: Well the movie squeezes a whole lotta that manga in there, for one thing. The manga is nine volumes and the movie covers, uh, most of them? They reduce nearly an entire volume of the manga to one three-minute segment of the story. I mean, they had to for budget purposes. They probably knew that the prospects of a sequel were grim, so they loaded it up. Personally, if you showed me a dimensional portal and told me it’d warp me to the world where James Cameron got to make his five-part Alita movie series in 1997 I’d jump right in.

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James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez
Image: Alita: Battle Angel (20th Century Fox)

Gita: Right, that was the original plan, after Cameron saw the Alita animated movie? Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready. What’s interesting to me is that even though this movie speeds through the plot and hits all the important beats, it doesn’t feel like a checklist adaptation. The first two Harry Potter movies felt like everyone was just going through the motions to get to the shit fans want to see. Instead I was able to get really engaged in Alita’s melodrama.

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Tim: I think part of the reason it’s such a good adaptation of the manga is that it’s not based on something most people in their target audience know about. Their target audience, we should be clear, is “everybody,” or more specifically “everybody who watches Marvel movies.” Clearly many Anime People know, love, and revere Alita. They condensed as much of the manga as they could into one two-hour movie (it easily has two and a half hours’ worth of stuff in it!) so that they could wow the audience with a shotgun blast of all the relevant details and plot points and sub-plots. You’ve got the amnesiac robot girl whose destiny it is to overthrow an evil regime; you’ve got an altruistic doctor who repairs people’s cruel-future-necessitated biological limbs for free by day and hunts rogue cyborgs with an engine-powered axe-hammer by night as a “Hunter Warrior;” you’ve got the punk kid with a one-wheeled motorcycle who rips limbs off hapless citizens at night to make a living, who falls in love with the amnesiac robot girl; and you’ve got the futuristic rocket-powered-rollerblades sport of Motorball! That’s a lot of stuff, man! Maybe it’s my familiarity with the source material talking, but I feel like it wasn’t presented in too disorienting a way.

Gita: There’s a romance plot in there, too.

Image: Alita: Battle Angel (20th Century Fox)
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Tim: Yeah the romance is the part I see people ripping up on Twitter. Dudes in my mentions love telling me that they hate the guy Alita falls in love with.

Gita: I haven’t read Alita or watched the animated movie, and I felt like I was perfectly following along. I’m actually super excited to read it now to see all the extra plot stuff they had to cut, because the world itself was so interesting to me. The plot is basically what you just said: you start with an amnesiac robot, and then about a thousand things happen. Maybe it’s because I didn’t read the manga, but I personally loved the romance subplot. It was the perfect teen movie twist for me. It’s not deep, but it’s horny and single-minded in the way that teenage romances are.

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Tim: I am a 39-year-old man and I thought the romance was good! I was like, “Hmm, I do not approve of this guy,” and that qualifies as an “interesting feeling.”

Gita: This is a whole other conversation, but sometimes I get confused about what people want from their movies. In a movie about a robot with knife arms, are you really expecting a Very Smart Plot?

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Tim: As far as robots with knife arms go, the plot was plenty smart for me, anyway.

Gita: Besides, the characterization are mostly placeholders to get to the action. I don’t need to know the inner workings of Alita’s mind to know that she’s clashing emotionally with her adoptive dad about her identity. It works just fine to establish a conflict and then use the action to work things out. And the action was... pretty friggin good.

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Tim: The action was so legible. It was so easy to tell exactly what was happening in every scene. It’s almost as though some movies make the action extremely up-close and illegible because they aren’t 100% sure of how their movies look overall. And Alita looks great! The design of the world was great!

Gita: I loved the small details on the body Ido gives her after he found her in the dump. The engraving!

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Image: Alita: Battle Angel (20th Century Fox)

Tim: One of my dumb friends (he’s reading this: hi) was saying on Facebook that he hated how happy everyone looked in the dystopia. How sunny it was, how everyone was wearing cargo shorts. I just appreciated how different and colorful it was from other stereotypical dystopias. I feel like it rings true with 1990s anime in general. And dudes wearing cargo shorts in the background while Alita walked around with her super-ornately engraved ceramic robot limbs just reminded me of Final Fantasy XV, where regular NPCs are all wearing polo shirts and khakis while you’re four dudes running around in your $2800 runway fashion outfits.

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Gita: Even in shitty places, people still live and thrive. It was nice seeing people try to make a life even though the world was so hard. People don’t just give up hope when a ruling class has taken over. You still try to get by, have a family, fall in love. So much of this movie is about class and trying to survive in a very stratified class system. I liked how that fed into, but did not distract from, the awesome scenes of people hitting each other with giant hammers and swords. Or, like, Alita kicking a giant dude in half.

Tim: Some of the owns were ferocious! Persons involved with directing or choreographing action scenes in films these days have to one-up the competition constantly, and I love to imagine these “Hmm, how can this be different from [similar scene in another movie]?” conversations behind the big hard punctuation marks in action scenes like those between Alita and her Big Buddy Rival Guy. What I mean is, wow! Nice owns.

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Gita: It was nice that the camera didn’t confuse the action and used some digital effects like artificially slowing down time to enhance the action. Sometimes fight scenes in movies are really flashy but also really confusing—I want to know who’s getting hit and why. Here, you occasionally get these single actions, like Alita kicking someone, slowed down to almost a full stop so you can see the full force of the action, not as a way to show off or “look cool” but to help guide you to the next time someone’s getting hit. Man, those owns were good.

Image: Alita: Battle Angel (20th Century Fox)
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Tim: There was a good sticky weird heavy semi-unrealistic stylized physicality to it, like what the Marvel movies go for, except tuned by and for a slightly more demanding connoisseur. Which kinda describes a lot of this movie, I think? It’s like, clearly they’re trying to appeal to Marvel fans, because if you’re not appealing to Marvel Cinematic Universe fans In Today’s Economy, whose money do you actually want? And though people love to yell and cry about too many sequels or remakes or whatever, the numbers show that the sequels and elements of enormous connected universes make All The Money and “new” things like Alita don’t make any of the money. You can sense some idealism in this movie, like some producer (James Cameron himself?) is saying, “We’ll make a movie in the style they like, except we’ll wow them with story and quality and originality.”

Gita: Given the surprise in the very last moment of this movie, I super, super want a sequel. It seems like the entire cast is having The Best Time with this movie. Mahershala Ali seemed like he was having a blast. I hadn’t thought about the Marvel connection, but you know what, you’re right. If this came out every summer instead of a Marvel movie I would be really okay with that. I want action movies that are this fun, this stylish and with a cast and crew that loves the project as much as everyone working on Alita clearly did.

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Tim: Mahershala Ali! I have seen that man with four different haircuts playing technically five different roles (two of them in Alita) these past couple weeks and I still can’t get enough of him. That guy is a Real Movie Star. I really wish there were an Alternate Cinematic Universe. Maybe Alita can band together with John Carter and Speed Racer! and Valerian.

Gita: And Jupiter Ascending.

Tim: And Cloud Atlas. And let’s throw The Fifth Element in there! And Luc Besson’s Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, who was in that Ghost in the Shell movie.

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I think anime fans, game fans—I think they overreacted and yelled too much negativity about this movie way before it came out. I think they were so busy being scared it was going to be hideous like that Dragon Ball Evolution movie from 2009, or boring like ScarJ Ghost in the Shell, that they forgot to consider that it could be like Speed Racer from 2008. I think this contributed to a bad buzz, such that every person replying to me on Twitter when I said the movie was great genuinely asked me “What, really?” However, if one shows up 30 minutes early to the Alamo Drafthouse showing of life, one gets to see their expertly-curated pre-show reel of vintage anime trailers. This is a metaphor and also reality: before the show, they showed a bunch of vintage anime trailers, many of which included critic quotes from James Cameron himself.

On the 2001 trailer for Rintaro’s Metropolis, written by Katsuhiro Otomo, there’s a James Cameron quote saying “Images from this movie will stick with you for the rest of your life.”

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Like, wow, he was there, man. Him and Guillermo Del Toro were there, watching anime in 2001 like it was a thing for normal people to do. And Metropolis is a mash-up of Tezuka Osamu’s manga and Fritz Lang’s movie, written by the guy who wrote Akira! That’s an interesting, weird, beautiful combination of things, proving, if nothing else, that anime isn’t totally sacred. So what I’m saying is, trust James Cameron to trust Robert Rodriguez to direct Alita. Go see it today, or, I don’t know, watch it on Netflix later.

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