Who’s telling the truth about Alita?
Alita: Battle Angel is a revolutionary milestone for anime and manga film adaptations. With the star power of Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron in its directing and writing credits, Alita brings the world of its source material to life with spectacular visual effects that only Hollywood could create.
But is it any good?
According to many traditional critics, Alita leaves a lot to be desired. Dancing on the knife’s edge of a recommendation from Rotten Tomatoes, notable critics like Richard Roeper have torn into the film for its “convoluted mess of a plot.” Meanwhile, anime fans and Youtube personalities have called Alita the first good Western film adaptation of a manga or anime. With such a huge rift in opinion, who should you believe about Alita? More importantly, should you believe anyone about Alita?
I won’t pretend to be totally objective here, but let’s take a look at what critics and fans have said about Alita. And once that’s over with, I’ll throw my own hat into the chasm of opinions.
Why critics don’t like Alita.
The most common criticism in negative Alita reviews boil down to “it’s style over substance.” I’ve got some words about this, but more on that later.
Either way, the storytelling structure of Alita has been a huge sticking point. Set in 2533 AD, 300 years after an apocalyptic war, Alita‘s world has a lot of lore for viewers to take in. Some critics had a hard time following the plot without knowledge of its source material. Other critics found Alita‘s world interesting, but the melodrama between her and her love interest took too much priority for too little payoff. Most critics note some inconsistency in the characters’ motivations, though generally recognize Rosa Salazar’s acting to be stellar.
The action scenes are hit and miss with critics too, no pun intended. Most reviews indicate there’s some good action in here, but complaints of cheesy choreography and dialogue are abundant. It’s worth noting that the common point of comparison in these reviews is other James Cameron movies, particularly Avatar.
Beyond that, virtually no review appreciated the structure of the film’s final act. Ending on a huge cliffhanger, Alita doesn’t have a big bombastic climax like viewers would expect. Instead, audiences eager for the story’s conclusion are going to need to wait until a sequel is greenlit… or just go out and buy the original manga.
Why anime fans like Alita.
Many anime fans don’t necessarily disagree with critics on their most common critiques. Fact of the matter is, anime fans aren’t looking for a conventionally perfect movie. Rather, they want an adaptation to capture what they love about anime and manga. To this end, Alita succeeds because it is so unapologetically anime.
Between the larger-than-life character designs and the over-the-top action sequences, Alita feels like a live-action anime. While the huge digital eyes on the titular protagonist were big sticking points in the original trailers, the end result helps Alita stick out as a cyborg that lives in a world of humans. This is bolstered by seamlessly integrated special effects that makes the futuristic world feel real despite its aesthetics.
Fans of the original manga and its one-off OVA have also praised the movie for its faithfulness to the source material. Even moments that could have been too dark for a PG-13 rating have been retained, though potentially a bit downplayed.
There are a ton of anime films on the horizon, and many anime fans see Alita as a roadmap for how to do a live-action anime movie right. It’s clear that the people involved in this project were passionate about the film, and that passion comes to life in the big screen. While many adaptations try to change their source material to pander to Western audiences, Alita manages to retain its core storytelling while still being accessible to Western newcomers. According to anime fans, traditional film critics can’t appreciate those nuances without being fans of anime themselves.
What I thought.
As a regular anime fan with no attachment to the original manga, I knew I had to see Alita for myself. I figured my background would resemble most people on the fence about the movie by now, so I bought myself a ticket so I could throw in my own two cents. And I got to say, I left the theater firmly on the side of the anime fans.
As anime-inspired as Alita is, I was amazed by the film’s ability to merge both Western and Eastern sensibilities into a cohesive film. The action sequences were decisively unique, but weren’t totally unlike a Marvel film or Ready Player One either. Christoph Waltz was also a fantastic choice for Dr. Ido. He looks very true to the manga’s original art, yet audiences can easily relate to him as a father figure. The film is filled with little touches like this that help it feel like a “East meets West” milestone.
Moreover, Alita utilizes all the visual storytelling that I love in Japanese media. Critics may view the action sequences as mindless schlock, but there’s plenty of character building to observe through them. Alita’s growth as a character is especially reflected through her battles. At the start of the movie, Alita is both curious and surprised at how much she’s capable of. By the end of the movie, Alita is determined, confident, and ready to take on her ultimate enemy that sits in the floating city above her wasteland. As Alita “levels up” by fighting her enemies, so too does she grow closer to her destiny and discovering the mysteries surrounding her past.
I don’t mean to sound pretentious here, but this kind of visual storytelling is apparently not on the radar of many critics in print media. Case in point: in the Chicago Sun Times review, Richard Roeper complains that the body Alita takes on around the midpoint of the film is “completed with bigger breasts, although there really doesn’t seem to be any functional reason for a cyborg body to have bigger breasts.”
Not only did this sentence strike me as weird about a movie basically void of sexy characters (or cyborgs), but it ignores what struck me as obvious symbolism. Alita begins her story in a body literally designed for a young girl, whereas her second body appears after she’s mentally matured. Putting her in a body that is noticeably taller and postpubescent highlights that growth and emphasizes her humanity despite her robotic body. Moreover, the movie notes the form her body takes reflects her true age, which helps Dr. Ido to stop viewing her as a mirror of his lost child. These types of themes resonate with me in anime, but apparently, they don’t stick the landing for contemporary film critics taking the film more literally.
There’s plenty more to talk about in Alita beyond this, but I’d rather not spoil the whole movie either. Needless to say, the film gets two thumbs up from me.
Are critics missing the point of Alita?
Well… yeah, kind of. Critics lobbed many similar critiques of “style over substance” at James Cameron’s Avatar, yet that was critically successful while Alita is struggling to find its footing. So to that end, it’s hard to conclude anything but critics not getting the whole anime thing Alita was going for. That or they really didn’t like the cliffhanger ending.
But at the same time, you shouldn’t write off the critics’ opinion either.
Many readers mistake a critic’s review as some kind of objective valuation of media’s value. In actuality, a critic is just a person giving an opinion shaped by the media they like, their life experiences, and whether or not they liked the popcorn at the theater they attended. A thumbs-down from a critic doesn’t mean the film is bad, but it does mean that other people like that critic might dislike the film too. To that extent, older audiences who have never even seen anime probably aren’t the target audience for Alita, and these negative reviews are valuable to them.
Meanwhile, anime fans have developed a strong subculture. Influential AniTubers speak to millions of anime fans every day, and it’s these people who are giving opinions relevant to anime fans. Strong word of mouth can turn any flick into a sleeper hit, which is why passionate Alita fans are working their hardest to get their endorsements out there. Even if their criticisms mirror the critics at times, these faults just don’t matter as much to anime fans who have been waiting literal decades for a movie like this to hit the silver screen.
In other words, a 60% score on Rotten Tomatoes might actually be pretty accurate. Six out of ten people will probably enjoy Alita, and if you’re reading this article right now, you’re probably one of those key six. Critics might lack the eyes to see what makes Alita so special, but chances are, other audience members might lack that same vision as well. But if you can see Alita‘s merits and fall in love with it, then you’re the one who wins in the end. No matter what movies you like or dislike, no opinion is more important to you than your own.