Back in the 90s, when Blockbuster video rental stores were everywhere, it was a bit of a pastime of mine to wander the aisles looking for whatever caught my eye. More often than not I ended up begging my dad to let me rent the more expensive video games, but the anime section always called out to me. Eventually I’d watch many of the classic anime titles like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Ninja Scroll at an impressionable age, but there were many titles that, despite seeing them on the shelves hundreds of times, I just never got around to. One of these, naturally, was the two episode OVA of Battle Angel.
So it was, that when the initial trailers dropped for a Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron collaboration called Alita: Battle Angel, I knew exactly what they were doing. Sure, I never watched the anime or read the manga it’s based on, but I had a sense that this was more aspirational than other Hollywood anime adaptations—even if it looked a little weird.
Because of this, I wanted to get some sense of where that aspiration and inspiration came from, so I watched the 55-minute Battle Angel OVA (easily accessible on YouTube), a few hours before I went off to the theater. This left me with a good sense of what Battle Angel was, but it also sparked several questions for me. What would they do with all the violence in this PG-13 take? How would they stretch this story to be more than double the length of the OVA? And lastly, how would they handle some of the darker themes in a Hollywood adaptation?
How Alita: Battle Angel’s PG-13 rating changes the violence
The 1993 OVA I watched was full of the darker anime tropes that drew me to the medium in the first place. As a kid, I was attracted to anime because it felt like cartoons for adults, and as far as the US market was concerned back then, it mostly was. Battle Angel was full of gore, blood-soaked amputations, a few shots of a naked woman, and one scene where a poor dog is violently eviscerated.
What’s wild about the live-action film, Alita: Battle Angel, is that none of those R-rated anime scenes are missing. In order to pull this off and maintain a PG-13 rating, most of the gore is shown off-screen or minimized. All of the cyborg characters have had their red, human blood replaced with blue blood, allowing just as many, if not more violent amputations and decapitations to occur on screen without teetering over to an R-rating. The nudity is replaced with a more respectful sexy négligée, and they even use their one uttering of the word “fuck” with good effect.
While it’s impressive how Alita stretches the PG-13 rating to maintain the violence of the source material, it’s less impressive in how it matches the tone. Battle Angel was grimy cyberpunk, with a strong sense that the world these characters live in is overrun with poverty and danger. Here, Iron City is a bustling, brightly-lit, multicultural hub filled with teenagers playing games, shops selling big chocolate bars, and happy-looking people just trying to get by.
The tone felt closer to YA films in a lot of ways. The danger is real, but not so real that it’s unrelatable to a middle-class American teen audience. Yugo, Alita’s love interest, wants to escape Iron City for the beautiful but mysterious city in the sky, but whereas this desire felt like desperation to escape a terrible life in the original, here it feels more like ambition to live a better life.
How Alita: Battle Angel stretches the 55-minute OVA to over two hours
Okay, so I am aware that the Battle Angel Alita manga has been running for years, and that Cameron’s original script is based on that more than the anime OVA. However, after watching both, I think this script would have been better off limiting itself to the story told within the anime.
The biggest flaw in the narrative is the addition of Motorball, a deadly sport that everyone in Iron City loves. It’s a part of the manga, but here it feels like a tacked on spectacle to show off Cameron’s technology. To justify this, Motorball is worked into almost every element of the plot, often giving characters multiple motivations where they originally only had one. In the anime, Alita wants to become a bounty hunter. In the live-action film, Alita wants to become a bounty hunter AND a Motorball star. Because Motorball is shoved into everything without outright replacing the original ideas, the plot feels busy, with all these ideas ultimately watering each other down.
The plot also takes multiple detours to explain Alita’s backstory, all of which seem to force character motivations and trips to additional locations and scenes that could have been left unsaid. By the end of the film, despite clear aspirations for a sequel, most of the big questions are answered and there’s very little to look forward to. A more elegant script could have focused on a few key story beats, while seeding and hinting at mysteries for a sequel.
How Hollywood’s take on Alita adapts Battle Angel’s darker themes
The quick answer here is that Alita: Battle Angel contains every single scene from the anime OVA I watched, but the darker themes at the heart of them tend to go unaddressed. Yugo’s arc in particular contains some pretty heavy concepts that are only handled at a surface level here.
Ultimately, Alita: Battle Angel feels strained by pressure to stay true to the anime and manga, provide an Avatar-level spectacle, and tweak all of it for a PG-13 audience. The action is well-directed and fun to watch, and Alita herself is a technical marvel that steals the film. There’s undeniable heart here, and overall, I enjoyed my time watching Alita. But Rodriguez and Cameron stumbled by trying to be everything for everyone. They could have stayed true to the R-rated cyberpunk vibe of the source material and alienated the mainstream audience. They could have committed completely to a YA-inspired romance and motorball-playing heroine, alienating the fanbase. I think either choice would have been a stronger one than what we got.