Japanese Manga and Hollywood have had a rather peculiar relationship since as long as I can remember. While the former enjoys a huge following and immense popularity with loyal armies of readers and fans all over the world, the latter is only rarely rewarded with the same, while even among the ones that do, roughly half end up struggling to recover their budget. It would then appear as a paradigm that an insanely popular form of media isn’t able to conjure up the same repute or popularity for its adaptation in another, more widely consumed form of media, films. Movie adaptations of successful Manga have mostly been cases of hits and misses, and the number of truly successful manga adaptations, ones that received a fair amount of love from fans and got the cash registers ringing as well, can perhaps be counted on your fingers. Hollywood’s adaptation of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Death Note’ should really be able to prove the point I am trying to make.
In the given scenario, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ had a lot riding on its shoulders, and the primary reason apart from the obvious popularity of its source material would be James Cameron’s involvement, also used extensively as a marketing bout for the film, and the sizeable list of well-known faces that adorn the film’s all-star cast. Cameron here chooses to involve himself deeper with the project, as opposed to the executive producer role he has earlier limited himself to, also having written the screenplay for ‘Alita’.
What I believe the tricky part of adapting Manga comics to the screen successfully is getting the characters and setting and context right, while staying true to the graphic sensibilities of the original manga. I intentionally skip the ‘story’ part of it since that would be an essential in making any film of any nature work. In that vein, I was assured that ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ was in better hands than most manga adaptations, with the film’s director, Robert Rodriguez too bringing a certain credibility to the scene, given his success with ‘Sin City’. The film delivers too, but I’m going to hold off my verdict until the end of the write-up. For now, we delve into the legend that makes ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ what it is.
The year is 2563, and the movie opens on a grim note stating the current time to be 300 years after “the fall”, presumably a catastrophic war that left Earth a scorching dystopia brimming with overpopulation and on the brink of exhausting its resources. As most dystopias, the economic disparity that was also, again presumably (since virtually no information is revealed about “the fall”) at the heart of the war has left two notable factions in its wake. Iron City is a giant metropolis lying in the squalor, a literal collecting ground for the trash that falls from the affluent utopia in the sky, Zalem. The architectural contrasts between the two and how they are realised and portrayed are the very distinction between a Dystopia and Utopia. However, to the makers’ credit, we never once see the city of Zalem except a few short glimpses, which Is what in my opinion helps retain some of the intrigue behind why the protagonists down under aspire to the illusive city and its riches, and why, toward the end, it seems a goal that is unattainable.
The audience sees Zalem as the residents of Iron City do, as a giant fortification of a city floating in the sky, held in its position by humongous stayed cables hooked to pylons the size of skyscrapers, which should give you a fair idea of the scale. I think it’s a reasonably good feat in fantastical thinking and its representation and rendering. Iron City on the other hand is designed to look deliberately claustrophobic and overrun with humans and vehicles. Imagine a street to be a mixture of an Asian bazar in a downtown Chicago settlement, complete with an unmistakable industrial aesthetic and retrofitting of all kinds on buildings. This is a typical Iron City street during the day, mimicking a neon drenched Hong Kong street by night. It is by virtue of this setting that the film acquires a lot of its visual character that is among ‘Alita: Battle Angel’s strengths.