Alita is a postpunk Pinocchio, a cyberpunk Astro Boy.
Alita is her own person, even as she excavates who that is. She started as Gally, an amnesiac cyborg found discarded in the junkyard town beneath the floating sky-city in Yukito Kishiro’s first manga epic, “Gunnm” (1991–’95). The title, meaning “gun dream,” aptly sums its fusion of violence and romanticism, a wandering odyssey about bloodthirsty mechas bested in combat by a soul-searching porcelain doll. Kishiro’s series was a unique voice in the era, breaking ground with its infusion of funky Hundertwasser architecture and Syd Mead tech, a female foil to all the steroid droids of the time, and a more cosmopolitan inclusion in its characters; i.e., the villain Vector is a rare African-American in the manga/anime of the period.*
*[An ongoing awakening. With progressive examples from Japan’s Michiko & Hatchin to the USA’s Star Wars: Resistance, diversity in anime casts is slowly increasing. The East’s media often takes its cues from the West, and as inclusion replaces bias in each, the cultural osmosis can only help both.]
The result was an uneasy mix that, like its lead and its creator, found its strengths across time. The art evolved from cartoony forms with hyper crosshatching sliding all over the page (Vol. 1) to sharp figures in tight panels with a strong graphic sense (Vol.4). The gory death-matches shifted gears into roller derby competitions. Gally matured from a moon-eyed teen to an eerily self-possessed and unbeatable gladiator. While a sideways sexism still recurred in the rare female characters (baby doll, whore, servant), the hero herself emerged as a strong person of indomitable spirit, tempered by compassion.
Her evolution continued in the anime rendition Battle Angel (1993), which condensed the pinball plots of the first few volumes into two succinct half-hour specials. While being markedly faithful, its inspired invention of the conflicted scientist Chiren and expansion of Vector within the main love story about Hugo blueprinted the basics of the eventual film. In 1995, Viz Media released the manga in English translations as graphic novels under the name “Battle Angel Alita,” giving her the iconic name.
Alita achieves her fullest maturation on the big screen. Across 20 years, filmmaker James Cameron developed a live-action version that he scripted with Laeta Kalogridis (showrunner of Altered Carbon). Director Robert Rodriguez tightened it into this winning film, a fleet story surprisingly rich in character, design, and nuance. Whereas Kishiro’s Kansas wastelands were tech noir in black ink, the shift here to South America suffuses the recycled city’s adobe bricolage with golden light. At its radiant center is Rosa Salazar, whose robust performance as Alita turns cinema’s most sophisticated CG puppet into a complex and real human being. We don’t just believe she’s real, we care for her. Like its severely undervalued counterpart Ghost in the Shell (2017), a fully international cast opens up the material, with concise turns by Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali. What could have been another Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots flick is transformed into a coming-of-age drama, a moving romance, and a rousing Feminist allegory, with the jolting battles and kinetic racing sequences as a bonus.
The long gestation of the film actually helped its artistic success. As Kishiro’s ever-fractaling trilogy played out across the decades, Cameron and Rodriguez benefited from seeing that total view in factoring their world-building. Contrary to the overbuilding and spectacle glut that sunk Jupiter Ascending, they abridged the first three volumes (and some of the fourth) into a deft story seeded with light exposition and tantalizing hints of her past and future. They directly quote the manga and the anime reverently while enriching them with vivid new detail, from the filigreed alabaster of her first form to Zapan’s Aztek calendar back, from the polyglot bazaars to the spiral chandelier of the sky-city, from Alita’s large eyes to her boundless soul.
Alita has faced some fierce antagonists on the page and screen. But maybe none so tough as American ignorance, where the box office was tepid. But with 75% of its money earned from international markets, the film was a profiting success regardless. Alita is a fine film that deserves great sequels.