America doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to live-action adaptations of manga. We cast Scarlett Johansson in an inferior version of Ghost in the Shell, ruined Oldboy even after the South Korean film got it right, and the less that’s said about Netflix’s remake of Death Note, the better. But years ago, Hollywood heavyweight James Cameron announced that an adaptation of the manga Battle Angel Alita was being written, and that he himself would direct—but that fell apart when he decided to make five Avatar movies back to back. And so now we have 2019’s Alita: Battle Angel, directed by the visionary filmmaker behind Sin City and, uh, Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

Though Robert Rodriguez directed, the screenplay was still written by James Cameron, alongside co-writer Laeta Kalogridis. It’s clear that both Rodriguez and the writers are passionate about the world of the manga. Alita: Battle Angel is set in a post-apocalyptic 2563, after a war known as “The Fall” decimated once-legendary floating cities and left earthbound society in a state of technologically advanced lawlessness. The wealthy live in Zalem, the last remaining floating city, while unlucky cyborgs and humans fight for survival in terrestrial Iron City. Scientist Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of a cyborg in a scrapyard, and upon discovering that her teenage human brain is fully intact, he rebuilds her body as a young girl—and that’s how we meet Alita.

The director and writers collaborate their visions of this world into something truly remarkable. Alita: Battle Angel has spared no expense in bringing the manga to life, and the result is some of the most stunning visual effects work I’ve ever seen. Iron City is breathtaking, expansive, and impossibly detailed—the creative potential showcased by the animation and production design is nothing short of revolutionary. And it’s not just the world that’s impressive: Alita, a mixture of motion capture and animation, looks photorealistic next to real-life actors. You’ll believe that those big anime eyes are real.

The screenplay, while a faithful adaptation of the manga’s story, is not as admirable. Characters speak almost exclusively in clichés, and the Hollywoodification of the plot renders it utterly predictable. James Cameron taking the reins on writing a female character produces some groan-worthy moments as well. Like Ghost in the Shell, the original manga used its cyborg story to explore the nature of humanity, but such a thematic journey has been excised from the movie. It’s probably to the manga’s credit that, despite these flaws, Alita: Battle Angel is still interesting: the narrative’s fresh and exciting set pieces were not lost in the adaptation process. Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope shoots the action scenes exceptionally well, and Rodriguez manages to skirt around the PG-13 rating and maintain the manga’s gruesome spirit.

Given Alita’s strengths, I was pretty excited for the movie’s finale to kick in—less talk and more battle. But then it ends. Apparently a sequel is in the works. Hey James Cameron: your visually spectacular, thematically lacking movies would be far better if they were complete stories. Moviegoers will be better off with the manga if they’re looking for an end to the beginning and middle.

★★★   (3/5)