I have watched Hollywood take a stab at big manga series far too many times.
Ghost in the Shell is an amazing manga–but the live-action movie is something of a dog. Too many times has Hollywood tried to cram the entire plot of a years-long manga series into the space of two hours, at which point the result is just a muddled, terrible mess.
But I had high hopes for Alita. I had high hopes because James Cameron is generally a good filmmaker, and this had been his dream project for a while. I knew he’d craft it lovingly, into a work that took my breath away. What I didn’t know is that he’d be making a movie perfectly built to discuss here, on this site.
Because James Cameron has made the most Japanese film ever to be produced as a big-dollar Hollywood movie. Alita is breathtaking in its plot line–and there are reviewers out there panning it. So let’s talk about the difference between an American-style action piece, and a Japanese-style one, and let me tell you what makes Alita amazing.
So, one review I read had this to say:
“I’M GOING TO go ahead and spoil Alita: Battle Angel for you. Not because I’m a dick, but because revealing the ending tells you nothing about the plot and will ruin absolutely nothing about the film. It ends—drum roll, please—with Alita (Rosa Salazar), sword in hand, staring down her foe, her Big Bad. Then it cuts to black and the credits play. The whole movie is a setup for a punch line that never comes.”
And this gets the ideas behind Alita so very wrong that it misses the point entirely.
Alita is an action film in that it has a lot of big-budget, CGI badassery. Really, really good big-budget, CGI badassery. But it’s not an action film in that it is not a film about action. In fact, for every scene involving action save one, the action does not operate as a climax-it operates as a denouement.
You see, Alita is a classic, Japanese hero. She is the most powerful weapon on the surface of the planet. We are told this. We know, know, that Alita is far, far more advanced than the cyborgs she finds herself fighting. Which means there’s no point during the story at which you wonder how a fight is going to end. There is no tension in the fight scenes themselves. When Alita skates out into the Motorball rink, and the cyborgs around her all look at her, and Doc Ito is up in the stands telling her–and us–that this is an assassination plot, you don’t worry for Alita. You just feel kinda sorry for the mooks they suckered into getting taken apart by her.
All of this is true because the story isn’t about what happens when Alita fights. It’s about whether she chooses to.
Every time tension builds in this story, it revolves around whether or not Alita can push things one step further. Whether her decisions, and the circumstances around her, are going to allow her to push her towards rediscovering her old self, or whether she’s going to be content to deal with things as they are. So every time she’s actually fighting, the tension is released. The decision has been made.
And yes, the final shot is Alita, sword in hand, staring down the primary antagonist. And fade to black. The movie gets to the point where you don’t need to see what happens–you already know. She’s an indestructible death-goddess; there’s no suspense in what’s going to happen once she has decided to kill him. The only question that needed answering was whether she would make that decision. And, sword in hand…that question is answered, and the movie ends.
Will this play with American audiences? I have no clue. We like seeing the mayhem, and we don’t think the story is over until we see the blood on the walls. But I’d like to think there’s people who can grok the internal logic of loving Alita for what it is; a coming-of-age story, and not an action movie. It’s about a young girl growing up–even if the thing she grows into is the baddest-ass weapon on earth.