WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Alita: Battle Angel, in theaters now.
Alita: Battle Angel certainly does its best to create an expansive cyberpunk universe that producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez hope does well enough at the box office to turn into a franchise.
Unlike previous anime to live-action adaptations, the global box office is relatively strong so far (it opened huge in China, and may finish at $500 million worldwide), making a follow-up a definite possibility. However, despite its financial success, the movie continues an undesirable trend which once again underscores Hollywood's whitewashing problem.
We's seen this issue recently in Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange, where Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One, and most notably, Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell film. The latter was notorious for its tone deafness, with Scarlett Johansson's Major Mira Killian/Motoko Kusanagi emerging as another example of a white person playing a character of color, helping perpetuate the "white savior" stereotype which has plagued the entertainment industry for decades.
It seemed progress had been made in moving past such short-sightedness when Ed Skrein turned down the role of an Asian character in the Hellboy reboot, a character that was quickly recast with Daniel Dae Kim in the role. Alita, though, walks this notion back, reminding us whitewashing is still happening when it can easily be avoided.
Now, this isn't to knock Rodriguez's film entirely; it does have a diverse cast, with an especially strong Latinx representation. However, it's disheartening to see a Japanese-adapted property lacking any sort of meaningful Asian presence. As good as Rosa Salazar is as the lead, Alita ultimately feels regressive, especially to fans of the source material. You can't help but think to yourself, as you watch Christoph Waltz playing Dyson Ido and Jennifer Connelly as his estranged wife, Chiren, "It honestly can't be that hard to find talented Asian actors to play Asian characters."
Sure, these actors are A-listers cast in leading roles, but what's the excuse for the semi-pivotal scrap dealer, Tanji (played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) being cast as anything other than Asian? This character could have easily gone to an Asian actor without coming off as a token role, and it would have felt so natural to the source material. Simply put, by refusing to embrace the people and overall culture which inspired the manga, Alita comes off as slightly insulting.
Alita makes matters worse by whitewashing its main villain, Grewishka (played by Jackie Earle Haley), and relegating Rick Yune's bounty hunter, Clive Lee (a key villain in the manga), to a quick cameo. Given Yune's acting ability, there's no reason he couldn't have played Grewishka, or even Dyson himself rather than being wasted in a role with no prominence. Even more disappointing is the only other Asian character of significance in the film is Lana Condor's Koyomi. She was one of Alita's friends in the source material, but on screen, she's drastically reduced to a throwaway character.
The manga's creator Yukito Kishiro did praise the film, just like the GitS creator, Masamune Shirow, and that's fine -- we understand. To these creators, it's up to the studios to subvert the material as they see fit; after all, their original vision still exists no matter what happens with the live-action adaptations. But the kind of mentality that leads to removing the source material's Asian influence leaves a portion of the audience feeling like they're being sold short, or worse yet, excluded.
It feels hypocritical to see how GitS got slammed while Alita is somehow mostly escaping criticism despite making the same mistakes. What's even more shocking is that, in the end, GitS actually had more of an Asian presence. It's time Hollywood truly becomesaware that whitewashing takes away a sense of identity from certain demographics. It's great that 2018 had such immense success stories in Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but Asians, in particular, are finding their battle an uphill one. Sadly, Alita is the latest missed opportunity which could have helped rectify this.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel stars Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor and Eiza González, and is in theaters now.