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Battle Angel Alita - The Best Thing You've Never Heard of

I always feel like, somebody's watching me

I know what you’re thinking. What the hell is Battle Angel Alita? At least that’s probably what you’re thinking if Battle Angel is even on your radar, which it probably isn’t. As San Diego Comic Con was winding down, the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel premiered. Most of the people I’ve talked to about it had one of the following two sentiments, or both.

1. What the hell is this?

2. Oh my God what the hell is wrong with her eyes?!

I’m going to explain both of these things to you, and more importantly, I’m going to explain why you should care. So suit up, strap on your blades and get ready for Battle Angel Alita, the best thing that you’ve (probably) never heard of. Mild spoilers will follow.

Battle Angel Alita is the English name of the cyberpunk manga series Gunnm (which means Gun Dream) by Yukito Kishiro. It was serialized in Business Jump, running from 1990 to 1995.

Quick culture note: Japanese Manga (comics) are generally serialized in anthology magazines, where each issue contains the new chapter of various titles. These anthologies can range from weekly to monthly, and chapters from a series are later collected into a trade called tankobon, much like how American comics are collected into trade paperbacks.

Why the name change? I don’t know, but this happened with several names throughout the series. An early translator claimed it was to make the manga more appealing to a general audience. While I understand that from a marketing standpoint, Gun Dream is easily as cool as Battle Angel, but I digress. Battle Angel Alita takes place in the far future, where an asteroid wiped out most of life on Earth. The rich and the elite rebuild civilization (or a form of it) in space, while those stuck on Earth’s surface do their best to survive. We begin in a city named the Scrapyard (Scrap Iron City in the original Japanese), which is a literal dump heap. Above the Scrapyard floats the city of Tiphares (Salem in the original) where the rich live without want or hardship. Tiphares uses the Scrapyard as its, well, scrapyard, literally dumping its trash into the city.

One of the kinder citizens trying to eke out a living is a doctor named Daisuke Ido, who specializes in cybernetic surgery. While looking through the trash heap he comes across the head of destroyed cyborg. By some miracle, the brain is intact and still alive. Ido takes the head home and rebuilds her. Since the head looks like a teenage girl, that’s how he rebuilds her, although it looks like they’re changing this to a young woman for the movie. When the girl wakes up, she has no memories of who she is, where she comes from, or what happened to her. Ido names her Alita (Gally in the original).

Alita soon discovers that Ido is a Hunter-Warrior (a type of mercenary/bounty hunter), who hunts down dangerous criminal cyborgs. The Scrapyard has no official justice system, no police and no prisons. If a crime is committed, a bounty is put on someone’s head, and whoever manages to take them down gets the reward, the more dangerous criminal, the greater the reward. Some have bounties so large that they walk about freely because no one is willing to try and bring them down. Alita of course follows him one night. He’s not happy and tells her to go home since the cyborg he’s hunting is dangerous. Naturally the target gets the drop on them, and Ido tries to defend Alita, urging her to run home. But somewhere in the back of her mind, an old program kicks in, and Alita proceeds to whoop this cyborg’s ass, despite being smaller and not (re)built for combat. She decides to also become a Hunter-Warrior, and in the process hopes to discover why she has these combat memories, and what it means to be human.

And so begins one of the greatest manga ever. I can’t really put into words how much this series means to me, it’s one of my top 3 favorite manga series and I first read it about the same time that I discovered Ghost in the Shell and Neuromancer by William Gibson. All three of these had a big impact on my fourteen-year-old self, and ever since I’ve been a huge fan of Cyberpunk. Everything about it speaks to me, the trappings, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, social commentary, the punk aesthetic, anti-authority, what makes us human, etc.… Now I don’t necessarily agree with every bit of social or political commentary that a work may have, but that can honestly go for anything. I only bring that up because Cyberpunk is inherently more political than other subgenres of science fiction. Battle Angel Alita is one of the less political cyberpunk stories, focusing more on characters, tragedy, and coping with trauma, but even then things like classism and wealth disparity are inherent in the setting.

The original Battle Angel Alita ran for 9 volumes, not very long admittedly, but those 9 volumes are near perfection. I was personally satisfied with the ending, although many felt it was a tad rushed, and in all fairness, it was. At the time Yukito Kishiro was seriously ill, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to live, so he rushed an ending in case the worst were to happen, he wouldn’t leave an incomplete series. The good news is that Kishiro-san did get better, he’s still alive.

Unhappy with the original ending, he revived the series in 2000 as Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. Last Order retcons the final volume of Battle Angel Alita, starting roughly halfway through and continuing from there. While originally meant to just give an ending, Last Order ended up significantly longer than the original run, only recently ending with the 19th volume. After Last Order ended, another sequel, Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicles, began and is still running. I’ll be honest, I haven’t read Mars Chronicles, and I stopped reading Last Order when it started a tournament arc. I hate tournament arcs in manga, hate them. Absolutely de-frickin-spise them. Admittedly, this comes down to personal taste, and I’m not going to tell someone else they’re wrong for liking something that I don’t. But for me personally, I generally view tournaments as a “jump the shark” moment.

Quick culture note for those unfamiliar with manga: a Tournament arc is exactly what it sounds like. The hero and his/her friends get caught up in a tournament because *insert macguffin reasoning here, and they have to win because if they don’t *insert something important riding on it. This is fairly common in shonen (boys) manga, but Battle Angel isn’t a shonen series, it's a seinen (adult) series, which to me makes it feel even more out of place. Granted, this doesn’t really matter because for the purpose of this post, we’re going to be focusing on the original series. Which brings us to…

Alita: Battle Angel, the movie I’ve been waiting a decade for, and most likely the reason you’re reading this. I know, why did they change the name again? Two words, James Cameron. Allow me to explain. Cameron is a major fan of Battle Angel; I mean MAJOR fan. He purchased the film rights back in 2003 and was originally announced as the director, and I’m sure he meant it. The plan was for him to direct Battle Angel, and then Project 880. Project 880 would get its name changed to Avatar, a film you’ve probably heard of, and the order got switched. Avatar would be filmed first and then Battle Angel would follow. However, the technology Cameron wanted for filming didn’t exist yet. So, James Cameron being James Cameron did what he always does, he went out and made the technology himself. Avatar was released in 2009 to critical acclaim and proceeded to make all the money in the world. Believe it or not, for all the flack Avatar gets now, it was a huge hit when it came out, and it’s still the highest grossing film ever. A feat which convinced Cameron to focus on a zillion Avatar sequels, putting Battle Angel even further on the back burner, again. For a long time, I didn’t think I’d ever see a Battle Angel movie, but somehow Robert Rodriguez convinced Cameron to let him direct the film. Rodriguez is a good director, and I’m cool with this choice. However, Cameron is still heavily involved with the film, serving as both its producer and screenwriter, and since Cameron has a pattern of making films with titles that begin with either “T” or “A,” Battle Angel Alita was flipped to Alita: Battle Angel. This leads me to suspect that Alita is probably going to be marketed as a James Cameron film, not a Robert Rodriguez film. Rodriguez is successful, but he’s not James Cameron successful, no one is, and Alita is opening into an already crammed week. It’s going to be fighting two major blockbusters for audiences opening weekend, Aquaman and Bumblebee, and I’d be lying if I said this didn’t concern me. I think Aquaman will do well for all the reasons I listed last week, and I want Aquaman to do well, but I don’t want it to destroy Alita. Bumblebee is a Transformers spin-off, and while I’m personally not a fan of the Transformers films, the fact is that they’ve been very successful, even if Age of Extinction violated every tenant of the Geneva Convention.

As nervous as this makes me, if the studio markets Alita as a James Cameron Science Fiction Film, I think they have a much better chance of getting the audience in seats. Originally Alita was supposed to open July 20th, and I don’t know why they pushed it back to December. This summer hasn’t been all that strong movie wise, and July in particular was pretty weak. Alita would have opened mostly unopposed. If the studio is smart, they’ll play up Cameron’s involvement, and specifically the fact that its a film about killer cyborgs fighting more killer cyborgs, which is what he’s best known for. And seeing as Terminator and Terminator 2 are both nearly flawless films, I think it would be a mistake not to.

As for your second question, oh my god what the hell is wrong with her eyes, allow me to explain (I said I would). As I mentioned above, this film is based off of a manga series. In Japan, anime and manga characters have a history of being drawn with large eyes because it allows for better expression, it’s one of the unique features that defines anime/manga as markedly different from American comics and animation. Ironically, this trend was started first by Osamu Tezuka being influenced by early Disney animation. Cameron and Rodriguez wanted to recreate the look for the film, both for expressive reasons, and because it hints that she’s not fully human. Admittedly, it looks weird, and I think the cyborg body is enough of a clue that she’s... you know, a cyborg. I think keeping her eyes that big is a mistake, but the more I’ve viewed the trailer, the less noticeable it becomes, which will most likely be the case as one watches the film.

In an interview from several years ago, Cameron stated that he wanted to adapt “the spine story” and “motorball.” I’m not going to say what the spine story is, because that would give away too much, but motorball is a hyper violent sport similar to Rollerball, from the 1975 film of the same name. The trailer didn’t show any motorball, and I’m okay with that, because as cool as it is, I think adapting volumes 1-4 would be cramming too much into the movie (although Michelle Rodriguez has been listed as a motorball player, so I guess we’ll see). That said, there were several scenes that I recognized directly from the manga, so I think it’s going to be fairly true to the source material, and will most likely be following volumes 1 and 2, which includes the “spine story.” In fact, there’s a line Alita gives in the trailer that is potentially a really dark bit of foreshadowing (seriously, you have no idea), and I’d be okay if they end up changing/not having what it might be foreshadowing, because I honestly think that would be too dark for general audiences. I’m being intentionally vague here because I don’t want to spoil it. Anyway, based on the two trailers, it does look like they’re making some changes for a general audience. For example, based on a couple of interviews, Rodriguez and others have said they’re aiming for a PG-13 rating, and the trailer looks like it. I’m guessing there’s going to be a lot of “bloodless carnage,” with mechanical things being destroyed and flying everywhere when a cyborg gets killed. The original manga on the other hand, is notoriously violent. Cyberpunk in general tends to be more violent than other SF subgenres, but even by Cyberpunk standards, Alita was something else. We see a LOT of brains gets destroyed/splattered/eaten in the manga. Along with Berserk, I’d say it was one of the early codifiers for ultra-violence in mainstream manga. If Alita ends up being an R rated film, that’s going to be a hard sell, and we’re already looking at a $200 million budget for a film based on a more obscure manga that most folks haven’t heard of. Even as a fan, if I was in charge of this project, I’d push for a PG-13 rating to make it more financially successful. I know, I know, that’s “selling out,” but sometimes you have to be pragmatic about these kind of things. I’m guessing there’s a similar reasoning for changing Dr. Ido’s name from Daisuke to Dyson. But he’s being played by Christoph Waltz, so there’s nothing to complain about as far as I’m concerned there.

So why should you care about this? Several reasons: killer cyborgs, it’s awesome, it's genuinely intelligent science fiction, it’s something new, not a sequel or a reboot, and it's a brand new property film wise. Representation, that’s been a buzzword in entertainment lately, with plenty of blog posts and tweets about how more representation is needed in Hollywood. I agree, everyone should be able to see themselves reflected in film and entertainment media, especially as America is becoming a more diverse place with many of us having friends, and even family members who may come from a different ethnic or religious background than ourselves, which was not the case fifty years ago. Well, here’s the chance to put up or shut up. This is a film where a woman is not just the lead, but the title character. Furthermore, the actress portraying her, Rosa Salazar, is Cuban-American, so this film is exactly what people have been clamoring for: a film by a major studio with a Hispanic Woman in the lead role. But really, the killer cyborgs should sell you on it alone. And if NONE of that moves you, then see it because I’ve been literally waiting a decade for this film and it’s going to break my heart if this flops. Please.

I hope I’ve convinced you that Battle Angel is awesome. Be here next week for my review of The Meg. Jason Statham fights a giant shark, what more could you possibly want?

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