Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita, stateside) is a manga and anime with a cult following, deep history, and a rocky path to big-screen adaptation. The manga was written and drawn by Yukito Kishiro over the course of five years and nine volumes. Early in its run, it was adapted into an Original Video Animation (OVA) comprised of two half-hour, stand-alone episodes (based on the first two manga volumes) that were sold together on VHS, initially. In the states, the OVA (retitled to simply Battle Angel) had a large audience due to its emotional story and cyberpunk stylings, and gathered enough of a reputation to attract the interest of James Cameron, who eventually bought the film rights.
James Cameron, who had professed his enjoyment of the manga, was originally set to direct the film adaptation, but he has since left the dusty, rusted future of Battle Angel for the literally greener pastures of Avatar‘s Pandora. In his absence, the directing duties shifted to action auteur, Robert Rodriguez. After years of speculation and anticipation, a trailer has been released:
From the looks of the trailer, a lot of work has been done to keep the visuals true to the look of the manga and OVA, and the plot summary from the film’s website also seems to be holding to the basic story found in the first two volumes:
Set several centuries in the future, the abandoned Alita (Rosa Salazar) is found in the scrapyard of Iron City by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate cyber-doctor who takes the unconscious cyborg Alita to his clinic. When Alita awakens she has no memory of who she is, nor does she have any recognition of the world she finds herself in. Everything is new to Alita, every experience a first. As she learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield Alita from her mysterious past while her street-smart new friend, Hugo (Keean Johnson), offers instead to help trigger her memories. A growing affection develops between the two until deadly forces come after Alita and threaten her newfound relationships. It is then that Alita discovers she has extraordinary fighting abilities that could be used to save the friends and family she’s grown to love. Determined to uncover the truth behind her origin, Alita sets out on a journey that will lead her to take on the injustices of this dark, corrupt world, and discover that one young woman can change the world in which she lives.
Disregarding the nearly twenty year wait since the film rights were purchased where the fan anticipation has done nothing but build, the now-titled Alita: Battle Angel has another hill to climb given the context into which it will be released. Western adaptations of manga/anime doesn’t have a deep history, but, when it does happen, it tends to not do well. However, the most recent attempt, 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, was a cultural disaster as much as it was a box office stumble. Surely, with that still weighing heavy on the minds of fans and producers alike, it seems likely that Alita will be met with severe skepticism.
Optimistically, it has some elements that work for it that actively worked against Ghost in the Shell. For one, all iterations of Battle Angel take place in a far future United States; so, aside from the general appropriation of a story originally written and drawn by a Japanese artist, the wide-scope white-washing that occurred in Ghost in the Shell seems avoidable in this case. In the small scale, the father-figure character from the manga and OVA, Daisuke Ido, has had Austrian-German actor, Chrisoph Waltz, cast in the live-action adaptation; the character has been renamed Dyson Ido, so the criticism can’t be wholly avoided. Second, translated editions of the manga and the OVA have been widely out of print for awhile, so Battle Angel doesn’t have as much presence in the cultural zeitgeist as Ghost in the Shell had with its classic manga, multiple movies and television shows. If anything, because of this, Alita: Battle Angel seems to be in a good position to be released without much fear of controversy.
The manga was brought back into print in English by Kodansha Comics in May of 2017, but it still remains to be seen if the long out of print OVA will see a new release, either on Blu-Ray or on digital services. A re-release seems likely as a marketing move to raise anticipation for the film’s release.
While fan reaction to the trailer has yet to be aggregated here, it’s clear that Rodriguez and his team are making interesting choices that could go either way with fans of Battle Angel and sci-fi movie fans in general. There is the digital deformation of actress Rosa Salazar to make her appear closer to how Alita (or Gally, in Japan) looks in her original representation. Whether this technique is applied to other characters––both main and incidental––throughout the remainder of the movie may be the line between acceptance or rejection of this choice by fans. As mentioned previously, the westernization of Ido by casting Waltz in the role could lead to controversy, but that remains to be seen. Canonically, his character is less tied to the cultural origins of his name in the story and more to the mysterious Zalem (in Japan, or Tiphares in the States; Battle Angel is a veritable totem for how wacky things can get when translating texts for the sake of localization), a city occupied by the wealthy and entitled that ominously floats above Scrapyard, where Battle Angel‘s story takes place. Therefore, Ido’s race-change may be a non-issue, at least within the context of the story.
All that being said, after almost twenty years of being in development hell, it is refreshing and curious to see a property surface from the mire, at the very least. We’ll have to wait until July to see how much of the mud has stuck.