FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*
Since ALITA BATTLE ANGEL is one of the most faithful adaptations of a comics-property in history, I may as well lay out the manga's backstory by re-using an earlier writeup I did for a particular ALITA arc, IRON MAIDEN:
Yukito Kishiro’s world is dominated by an aerial city named Tiphares (named for the central sephiroth of the Kaballah’s “Tree of Life”), a city linked to the Earth’s surface by a long shaft and assorted cables. Yet for the first two arcs the reader does not see how life is lived by the citizens of the clouds. Rather, Kishiro focuses on the lives of the ground-bound humans whose domain, “the Scrapyard,” coalesces around the aerial shaft. The reader’s first image of this environment is that of a mammoth junkyard, reinforcing the idea that the people, too, are castoffs from legitimate society. Earthbound commerce centers around Tiphares as well. The only businesses Kishiro shows are METROPOLIS-style factories, whose main function is to process food and other commodities and send the goods up to the sky-city via the central shaft. The inhabitants of the Scrapyard, however, live a hand-to-mouth existence, and many of their bodies have become modified through grafting or through the addition of cyborg parts—which seems to debase rather than enhance most of them.
Much of the story of ALITA derives from the first origin-arc, IRON MAIDEN and the subsequent arc KILLING ANGEL. Future arcs dealt with the young cyborg's eventual journey to the forbidden cloud-city Tiphares, but ALITA can only suggest this potential. As scripted by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, Alita's early years in the Scrapyard serve to infuse her with two major motivations: to discover the original nature of her metal body's programming, and to avenge the death of her first love Hugo, and the script succeeds in making the familiar bildungsroman seem fresh, even if the film must by its nature end with its saga incomplete.
Though Robert Rodriguez does yeoman work bringing Kishiro's cyberpunk world to life, the pleasures of the Scrapyard and its piecemeal inhabitants takes second place to the characterization of Alita-- which is all the more remarkable, since the heroine's on-screen presence is that of a visual effect. Still, facial capture technology has come a long way since THE POLAR EXPRESS, with the result that real-life actress Rosa Salazar is able to convey a wealth of emotions through her CGI persona.
I can quibble at a few of Rodriguez's elisions. In contrast to the original manga, Alita's first love Hugo (Keean Johnson) never quite "comes alive," and some of the finer points of Kishiro's characterization are lost in translation. In contrast, Christoph Waltz provides able support as Alita's mentor Doctor Ido, who not only installs her brain in an unpredictable new body but also introduces her to the perils of the Scrapyard.
But ALITA is not primarily a drama, but an eye-popping adventure-tale, and Rodriguez does not disappoint here either. In fact, I prefer Rodriguez's combination of adventure and drama far over that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where much of the emotionality seems superficial and manipulative.
Rodriguez had a previous outing in adapating comics-properties, with the two SIN CITY films, and as I note in my review, the second film didn't turn out nearly as well as the first. However, those works were derived from an anthology concept. Thus Rodriguez, having a strong model to draw from in the manga-series, would seem to have a fool-proof series in the making.