Every year we are teased with a new Hollywood live-action adaptation of a beloved manga series. Anime and manga fans are notoriously pessimistic about Hollywood’s past attempts and you can hardly blame them.
Dragonball: Evolution, Speed Racer, and Oldboy barely made any money due to their poor adaptations. Recent attempts with Ghost in the Shell and Death Note were viewed as improvements, but they still failed to make a lasting impact. It’s easy to fall into a cynical hate cycle when learning about these adaptations, and since they rarely end up as watchable movies, their bad reputation ends up as a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Alita: Battle Angel is different, or at least it feels that way. James Cameron is one of Hollywood’s most successful and respected filmmakers of all-time. Every movie he has directed and produced has turned a profit at the box office except for one: 2002’s Solaris, which was a sci-fi movie damaged by false advertising.
Cameron has been working on Alita: Battle Angel as a passion project for at least 17 years. He fell in love with sci-fi manga series after fellow filmmaker Guillermo del Toro introduced it to him.
Once you explore Cameron’s filmography, it’s easy to see how he became enthralled with Battle Angel Alita (GUNNM). Cameron has built his career dominating the science fiction genre with classics like The Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar.
But the manga’s themes are also revered by the director. Battle Angel Alita follows an amnesiac female cyborg looking for her life’s purpose. She becomes a fearsome bounty hunter and a player in the fictional sport of Motorball. During her journey of self-discovery, Alita learns about human nature and the value of life through her interactions with various people – both good and evil.
Themes of human nature, life’s transient beauty, strong women, and self-discovery can be found in Cameron’s past works.
At one point, Cameron vowed to fans that he’d make the Alita movie after Avatar 2, but has since stepped away from the director’s chair.
Director Robert Rodriguez, who is also a fan of the series, was chosen by Cameron to direct the project. In a past interview, Rodriguez said the story and character designs are based on Cameron’s notes.
While Cameron is viewed as a god in Hollywood, Rodriguez shouldn’t be dismissed either. Rodriguez rose to fame in the ’90s with a passion for ultra-violence and dark humor. His work, along with Quentin Tarantino’s, ushered in a new era in the ’90s. The Mexico trilogy turned him and actor Antonio Banderas into international stars. Rodriguez also directed From Dusk Till Dawn and the Spy Kids franchise, showing that he is capable of multiple box office success.
This is good from a studio point of view since Cameron and Rodriguez are profitable names within the system. It also helped to net Alita: Battle Angel a $200 million budget – which is necessary for the CGI spectacle. Cameron has said in the past that the movie will cover 4 of 9 manga volumes, hinting at the possibility of sequels.
The biggest thing fans are talking about right now is Alita’s live-action design. Social media came out in full force roasting the big, anime-style eyes that were digitally plastered on Rosa Salazar’s face. They are also an intentional design choice.
Rodriguez spoke to Empire Online, saying:
“It was always Jim’s intention to create a photo-realistic version of the manga eyes that we’re so accustomed to seeing. We really wanted to honour that tradition and see that look standing next to any human character. To have the right person to emote behind it was really essential. Her origins are in the film and you understand why she looks that way. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, we have some pretty big windows. You can see a lot going on in there! When it gets to the emotional scenes it’s really uncanny and striking. And captivating!”
Those big eyes were always a part of Cameron’s plans because he wants viewers to feel uncomfortable and creeped out. In the manga, people do discriminate against Alita and other androids because of their look – Cameron and crew are just making it meta.
On paper, Alita: Battle Angel looks like it could be a box office win. The action paired with questions of human nature ticks enough winning boxes. It’s a story that is simultaneously deep and paper-thin, depending on the viewer’s individual mindset.
Even if Alita: Battle Angel is a box-office flop, it’ll be viewed as a favorable leap forward for adaptations simply because of Cameron’s and Rodriguez’s passion. In a way, it’s a similar hurdle comic book adaptations have faced.
After years of corporate and middle-of-road adaptation in the ’90s to early-2000s, it took hiring the fanboy director Sam Raimi to prove comic’s worth to Hollywood with Spider-Man (2002).