Alita, Can You Hear Me?

On December 9th, 2017, the internet was graced with a trailer for Alita: Battle Angel. Despite this having been hyped for years, the trailer was met with mixed responses. Some fans were ecstatic that this was happening, especially given producer James Cameron’s recent fascination with the Avatar franchise. Others, however, were mad that it “didn’t quite look like they’d hoped”. And even others were confused as to how to react all.

I’m impartial. For one, the trailer, though competently-made, didn’t floor me. I’m also not a fan of the lead’s anime-style eyes, as they don’t look right outside of animation. And honestly, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse looks more-interesting. But the premise is unique, being a hybrid of dystopia and romance, the use of the “Lullaby of a Soldier” in the trailer well-matched, and given that I’ve fervently defended Ready, Player One’s film adaptation based on Steven Spielberg being the director, I’d be a hypocrite for trashing this movie.

This could go either way. On one hand, Western adaptations of Eastern source materials tend to suffer in translation. Either the material’s too bizarre for Hollywood, isn’t thematically respected, or simply doesn’t add much to the table. To-date, the number of great Hollywood films based on anime and Manga can be counted on one hand, a finger if you’re not including Speed Racer (though I was never a big fan of the show anyway.) So throwing another log on the pyre, this time in the form of a cult Manga, isn’t doing the anyone any favours.

Besides, we’ve seen this before, most-recently with Adam Wingard’s Death Note. You’ll no doubt recall that I wrote about the Netflix film and had this to say:
“…I’m not so sure that this film will fail because the cast isn’t Japanese. It might actually fail because it’s jamming too much into one film. If anything, I think Wingard and Netflix should’ve taken a cue from Japan and made this two or three films, so as to allow the story to breathe. I like how it’s a Netflix exclusive, especially since I’ve liked a lot of the Netflix original content I’ve seen, but being one film might choke it. And that’s probably worse than whitewashing, as it looks to be trying.”

I feel similarly about Alita: Battle Angel. The whitewashing of the story, if there’s any to be had, isn’t the core problem. Edge of Tomorrow was adapted from a Japanese Manga too, and it was surprisingly good (it also helped me cope with the trauma of my dad’s heart attack, but that’s for another day). What’s concerning is, in an attempt to be good, it forgetting to be, well, actually good. And that’s troubling because there’s potential for a good movie in there somewhere.

There’s also potential for the film to actually work. This isn’t some mangy, c-tier duo working on the film. Say what you will about James Cameron, both pre/post-Titanic, but he truly is a master of visual storytelling. I’m not his biggest fan, but as one of three people who didn’t mind Avatar, to the point of re-watching it twice, I’m fully-confident in him. And Robert Rodriguez, for all his missteps, is an interesting idea man. So who knows?

Remember that discourses in film take time to perfect. The Star Wars/Indiana Jones craze of the 70’s and 80’s spawned many imitators for years, and most of them sucked. It wasn’t until the early-2000’s that superheroes were taken seriously by Hollywood. And it wasn’t until Iron Man that the possibility of a cinematic superhero universe became a reality. Trends aren’t instantaneous, include many missteps and go nowhere if people don’t keep trying.

Anime/Manga-to-film adaptations are no different, as there’s definitely a demand for attempting a bridge in the discourse due to anime culture being slowly accepted into the mainstream. Will it require failure? Yes, it will. Will the constant strike-outs be cringe-worthy and painful? Absolutely! But unless there’s a constant attempt, how will we know what works?

It’s possible that I’m overly-optimistic. It’s possible that this is all a failed attempt by old executives in Hollywood to try being hip for a younger demographic. It’s also possible that Alita: Battle Angel will be another failure in a line of failures. It’s all possible.

But we’ll never know if we don’t try. I’m old enough to remember when good entries in the superhero genre were few-and-far-between, contrary to what nostalgic filmgoers claim. There was also a time when the idea of a crossover akin to The Avengers would’ve been seen as either a joke, or simply too-risky. And that sentiment was still felt in early-2012, merely a few months leading up to its release.

We should never stop trying with anime and Manga adaptations. Perhaps Alita: Battle Angel will be the one to break the curse? Perhaps it’ll be another failure? We won’t know until the time comes, will we?

Those weird eyes have to go, though. I don’t care how expensive the edits are, it’s not a good look for the lead. Besides, if director Ridley Scott can airbrush Kevin Spacey out of his latest movie and replace him with Christopher Plummer, then fixing Alita’s eyes isn’t out of the question, right?


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