From Manga to Film, Alita: Battle Angel Reaching Zalem & Sequel Hopes

25 Feb

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez’s live-action adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm (Alita: Battle Angel in America) barely scratches the surface of what the 28 volume manga is (including Last Order and excluding Mars Chronicles which is still ongoing). Ever since Cameron announced he secured the rights in 2000 to bringing Gally’s (her name in the original manga) story to the cinema, I wondered if all the series will be covered. The anime barely scratched the surface. According to Polygon, this producer secured the rights for future video treatments and no further animation is likely to happen.

This film uses most of the American naming conventions than stick to the original. The CGI and motion capture technology to realize what Cameron wanted was not there and the wait for this film was frustrating. Cameron’s first idea was to turn the heroine into a Joan of Arc type figure and thankfully Kishiro corrected him. Gally is a rōnin. She serves no master. It makes sense, because in all her travels in the manga, she either had to leave people she cares for behind or they will die. This detail was revealed in a taped Q&A in early screenings of this film and to have this manga artist give his nod of approval is a good sign.

Respect for the original material is certainly there. The first few minutes were lifted right from the book, introducing the cybernetics doctor Daisuke Ido (Christoph Walz) and Alita (Rosa Salazar).

The vibe from the printed action sequences certainly translated over very well. The only difference I realized was in the gore factor. Binding flesh to robotics is not easy. The early books were not too macabre in the style of David Cronenberg, but it’s going to happen! Instead of a male assistant from the books, the role is gender-swapped and Nurse Gerhad (Idara Victor) is more of a surrogate mother than Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), from the anime. She was Ido’s wife and serves as a foil. While the good doctor accepts being exiled from Zalem, she does not and wants to go home. Nearly everyone looks at this cloud city as a symbol for a better life. The surface world can buy transport there, but viewers who know the manga know better.

Waltz is perfect in the role and that buzz on how unnatural Alita works is simply that. She is a cyborg, and the rules for design is anything goes. I got quickly accustomed to this look. All it takes is a willing suspension of disbelief. Rosa Salazar impresses, especially when she was in a mocap suit for much of filming. Weta Digital, DNEG and Framestore did most of the effects work, including translating the nuances of Salazar’s performance into CGI. To realize the fight sequences, storyboarding was needed to blend the close-up action sequences with wide shots of the Motorball ring.

Instead of the bouncy carefree character from the manga, this cinematic version is more like a lost soul. Any fleeting philosophy on existentialism is nixed in favour of an easier narrative on her coming of age, seeking validation of her existence. Cameron will pen a film to fully reveal where she came from, but that’s light years away from being turned into a film.

To bring a Japanese series over to an International scene is hard, especially when the fan base is not the same. This Americanized version is generally faithful to Kishiro’s manga and I had higher expectations when considering I read the entire manga before and wanted to re-read after the movie before writing this analysis.

To distinguish this Americanized version from the Japanese material, it had an air of representing Mexico City in complete dystopia. There are points in Iron City where people could go to worship the floating undercity known as Zelem. No central plaza exists ala Teotihuacan to offer sacrifices. The idea is certainly planted in the final frames when Alita points to the city and one citizen responds by staring back. The game she plays is known as Motorball–roller derby meets basketball. Rodriguez may have added his two cents worth by making the sequences similar to Ullamaliztli, an Aztec ball game where players win by putting the skull, er ball, into a small hoop.

As champions climb up the ladder, they can earn a chance to ascend to heaven. In the film’s case, visit the floating city.

Bounty hunters like Zapan (Ed Skrein) have it harder if that’s their motivation to acquire money to escape the city. He is worth noting because of the awesome Mesoamerican-style metal design on his back. The glimpses of it were always quick, but it mesmerized me. He has a larger role in the books which I will not spoil, but I hope he returns. In the world of Battle Angel, the only way to destroy a cyborg is to melt them and destroy everything that forms his or her soul. Shades of I, Robot can be felt as what defines sentience is explored. Typically, robots have a CPU to as its modus operandi. When Ido round Alita had an undamaged brain, is what he put back together Frankenstein or something else? The soul is immortal, but where does it exist? These are answered in Kishiro’s monumental series. Should this film get a sequel, it will have to go into waxing philosophy: what is quintessence?

I do not expect this franchise to go past the first series. It’s impossible to compress the second in its bloodsport and antediluvian glory unless half the flashback sequences are kept. Cameron loves this manga to death, and hopefully in whatever format his take develops into, a simple trilogy or otherwise, it will not diverge too much from seeing Alita gain the “humanity” she deserves.

4 Stars out of 5

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