Alita: Battle Angel is the story about Alita, a cyborg girl (Rosa Salazar) who is found in a junkyard within Iron City. She is brought back to life by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) and gifted a new body which Ido crafted for his daughter, before her untimely demise.
He names the girl Alita, after his own daughter. She has an entirely cybernetic body, except for her teenage brain, and a uniquely special heart strong enough to power all of iron city – the remnants of a technology of ages past. Alita is mostly happy with her second chance at life but knows that she’s much more than Dr. Ido leads on. She wants to discover what this feeling inside her is, but more than anything else, she wants to discover who she is.
At first, Alita is lighthearted and naïve about the mysteries of this world. Her learning experiences mirrors our own journey discovering the ins and outs of this dystopia. How a world crisis forced all of humanity into this dual-sided metropolis, and a war 300 year ago led to the abolishment of guns and advanced technology in Iron City. Nevertheless, Alita appears as an innocent girl learning about the basics of her own humanity, unaware of her great potential.
In the first act, she is mesmerized by Iron city, a skyscraper slum of stacked trailers and makeshift ghettos located beneath the city of Zalem – the technological paradise above them in the sky. She then meets Hugo, a teenage boy around her age who sells junk parts to Dr. Ido on occasion. Alita immediately takes a liking towards him.
She learns about Motorball, the exciting sport highly celebrated throughout Zalem and Iron City. One day, Hugo teaches her how to play with some of his friends, including his best friend Tanji (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and their mutual friend Koyomi – played by the lovely Lana Condor. Readers of TheWorkprint will be familiar with Lana Condor from Deadly Class – a show I review, weekly.
All is not well in Iron City, as there are mysterious stalkers on the loose stripping cyborgs for their parts – one of whom, is the ginormous Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a monstrous transformer-sized cyborg working for Vector (Mahershala Ali) and Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), the two superpowers run Motorball in Iron City – Vector as showrunner, and Dr. Chiren as doctor and parts specialist, who happens to be the ex-wife of Dr. Ido. Likewise, both Vector and Grewishka serve as vessels for the mysterious Nova – an observer from the city of Zalem, manipulating Iron City from behind the scenes.
Over time, fragments of Alita’s memories begin to unlock: her history as a rebel fighting a war over Zalem, 300 years ago. She signs up to be a hunter-warrior (bounty hunter, the only form of police in Iron City) to fight evil and unlock further memories, as combat seems connected to her hidden purpose. There are many who want to stop Alita, as she’s a gifted warrior, the very last of her kind. She battles to discover who she is, all the while, protecting the ones she loves.
One of the biggest problems this movie has is that critics are comparing it to pre-established science fiction movies. Complaining that they’ve seen it before in Ghost in the Shell, Valerian, Transformers, or even Elysium. With the amount of content getting released across multiple platforms these days, it’s just about impossible to have ‘not’ seen a storytelling technique before. My issue is that anyone that’s a storyteller (hi, that’s me) can breakdown how a story pulls from an infinite number of other stories – especially if they’re from the same genre.
Using that same logic I can say Star Wars is a rip-off of Flash Gordon. Or that the Bible is just a poor man’s Epic of Gilgamesh. They’re not and that’s sort of my point. Stories have taken details from each other since the beginning of time. There is no such thing as an original idea, just an original way of combing ideas.
Now I understand, because it’s James Cameron, and people have given him flack for this over his career. In fact, I also think Avatar is just a retelling of Ferngully – as the movie is visually and conceptually similar. Still, this shouldn’t detract you from the experience of this movie. You should enjoy a movie as its own thing. Especially because cynicism in cinema as of late is killing the industry.
New York Times feminist critic, Manhola Dargis has complained over Alita’s sexualized features. Condemning it as unnecessary for a cyborg. – especially when Alita transforms into a more adult version of herself (particularly one with developed breasts).
Unlike Ghost in the Shell, where The Major (The Main Character), also a cyborg, doesn’t care as much about her physicality, including her sexualized assets (as she uses them more as distractive tools for espionage if anything) – Alita does care about her gender identity and being a girl. Mostly, because romance plays a major role in her growth as a woman.
I think the critic missed a major element of the worldbuilding in this movie: Alita’s not just taking on her shape out of identified gender norms or preconceived notions of beauty, but because it’s her subconscious view of herself. This is not her going for a makeover – this is her actual form. Alita’s original body was that of a child’s because it was a gift given by Ido, constructed originally for his daughter.
At the same time, if we’re going for body imagery and Hollywood’s heteronormative sexualization – let me also point out that by the end of this movie, when Alita’s adapted into her final form, we throw a lot of this debate out of the window: look at how she looks in her final avatar – it’s more suited for a warrior than a sex symbol.
Finally, let me point out that Robert Rodriguez directed this movie. Sexuality and heteronormative masculinity are usually very prominent in his films – but in this movie, you can see him do a good job of letting that go by the wayside for the sake of telling a good story. And if you’ve seen anything by Rodriguez, you’ll also notice he’s fond of writing strong coming of age female characters, as is James Cameron.
To be fair though, gender and sexuality in technopunk/cyberpunk has always been a problem. Mostly, because it plays with sexual aesthetics while at the same time, completely denounces them in lieu of cybernetics – playing with the idea that people who are tantalized by sexual arousal are less evolved and constricted by physical needs. All of which could be removed when you have a literal mechanical off switch.
By the mid-2000s, the genre had phased out, and the style never had the chance to adapt to the more gender-woke identity issues of today – nor truly held a stylistic impact during the time of the #MeToo movement. At least, until recently.
I like that the movie took its time to develop Alita’s innocence and childlike sense of wonder. You get a solid story arc that takes her from humble to hero. It hits harder when she becomes the warrior, we expect her to be later, and the film does a great job pacing it out by starting her on such the opposite end.
In fact, I haven’t seen a female character this kickass in a movie before, and I’m including such hits as Hunger Games, Tomb Raider, and Wonder Woman – Alita is a thing of her own and I think it’s because you see her earn this right from literally scraps of nothing.
Much of this, is because Rosa Salazar is nothing shy of amazing, giving life to this doe-eyed do-gooder. She does a good job balancing headstrong aggression with vulnerable sensitivity, as Alita is an all-or-nothing character who wears her heart on her sleeve (like every teen), going through a journey of self-discovery throughout the entire movie.
Now, I’ve been a fan of Rosa Salazar since discovering her in the SXSW movie hit: Night Owls. Her early career is surprisingly comedic, performing sketches at collegehumor, and recording funny videos on the now defunct platform: Vine. But she’s also a tremendously rounded actor – this movie, finally showcasing the full depth of her talents. Rosa brings youthfulness to this secretly seasoned warrior, as she carries a powerful finesse and weight to Alita – yet is also still utterly adorable, and very susceptible to cute little puppy hugs (watch the movie, you’ll understand).
Likewise, the motion captured body language and expressions of Alita’s face is reminiscent of the technology used to create Na’vis from Cameron’s Avatar. You can see every microexpression in Alita’s face, making her emotional range extraordinarily expressive.
Manga-styled eyes were a design choice made by both Cameron and Rodriguez for the character. Though it’s a decision that resulted with mixed audience reactions, it does add an extra layer of emotional conviction: you can blatantly see how Alita feels through her eye expressions, much more beyond a normal protagonist.
In addition, enough can’t be said about Christoph Waltz in yet another amazing performance. He provides us a solid mentor and father figure to Alita, in role reminiscent to Django, unchained: where he was also wholeheartedly good natured, yet also capable of providing his own ass-kicking. More than likely Django had a lot to do with why he’d been picked for this role, as Tarantino and Rodriguez are frequent collaborators, and very good real-life friends.
I’d also be amiss by not mentioning the wonderful performance by Jackie Earle Haley as Grewishka. Many will remember him as Rorschach from the movie Watchmen, but his credits since then have showcased such an incredible range including prominent roles in Narcos: Mexico, The Tick, Lincoln, The Dark Tower, Preacher, Robocop, and A Nightmare On Elm Street. His performance was a new experience for the actor, as he plays a motion captured character who is large and clunky, but overall, he did a great job with was tasked of him. Likewise, those fight sequences between his character and Alita are some of the best in the film.
To round it out, Rodriguez also brought along some of his series regulars, people we’ve seen him collaborate regularly with over the years. Michelle Rodriguez as Gelda, the squad leader to Alita’s unit during the flashbacks. Jeff Fahey from Lost as McTeague, a fellow bounty hunter with a penchant for dogs, and even Eiza Gonzalez as the deadly Nyssiana, who played Pandemonium in the From Dusk Till Dawn tv series.
Now, Robert Rodriguez is not a director known for subtlety. His style has always been hard hitting, using what works, and executing on moments that take your breath away – much of which, is inspired by the director’s love of cinema.
Alita is distinctively his tamest film to date. Most of it, appearing more like a James Cameron movie, rather than something the director had created. It’s not until well into the second act, where we can finally attribute Rodriguez’s signature style through a stylish bar brawl. For reference, Robert Rodriguez’s movies Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn have two of the most renown bar fights in cinema history – so he’s really good at directing this type of scene.
But fight sequences are where this movie really shines. You really get to see the extent of its special effects through combat. With details never blurred down like in a Transformers or Marvel cinematic fight scene, everything in Alita: from the hardest axe kick, down to fingernails on her hand, is crisp and intense and loaded with detail.
This is a movie that should be watched in the highest quality possible. If not for the fights, then because the city is breathtaking, and the motorball scenes alone are some of the best combinations of motion capture and CGI to date.
Also, for a PG-13 rating, there is a lot of violence in this movie. We’re talking full-on eviscerations and decapitations, all of which is seemingly okay because… robots? To be honest, some of these dismemberments are brutal for your average standards – I’m surprised with what they got away with but it really works in the movie’s favor.
There’s a moment when Alita jumps into the pit to face the bad guy. A moment of unbound courage and leaping into danger where we know that from this point onward: she’s a hero. It also comes with a perfectly placed one-liner soon after, that pretty much sells the movie for me and any Robert Rodriguez fans.
A lot of what people don’t like about the movie is the story. Alita Battle angel has had a long and gruesome 20-year journey. What worked against it was the lack of the necessary technology and a dying cyber-punk genre. Eventually, James Cameron translated many of his ideas into his cult classic Dark Angel – inspired by ironically enough, Battle Angel Alita.
In that time they refined their script and personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with it. Sure, the first act moves forward rather quickly, bombarding us with information and exposition- but it’s ridiculously detailed world building, arguably some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Unlike in Avatar, which is filled with breathtaking moments that sort of serve no purpose outside of looking pretty, this movie is intriguing because it never wastes a scene. Everything you see and interact with teaches you more about this world – one that’s rich with so much material.
I didn’t notice it until my second time watching the movie. But every tiny detail serves a purpose. I’ll give you some examples:
In Act One, while simply walking the street with Ido, Alita questions why there are so many languages in iron city. We establish that it’s mixed because they are all that remains of humanity. Alluding to the 300-year-old war and Alita’s secret backstory. Shortly after, we see Motorball introduced on a television much earlier than the film’s explanation, and later, a Hunter-Warrior bounty paper is found blowing in the wind.
These are all things important to the story that are introduced at the very beginning – you just didn’t realize its importance. It’s these small moments in the movie that tell us a lot about the world but is also hard to catch the first time around.
Even the introduction of Hugo, is a scene served not only as a budding romance but to showcasing the warrior mechs, Alita’s caring nature (Puppy!), and her open-hearted take at the world. Also, if you’re watching a second time, pay attention to Doctor Ido’s patients – that actually hints at the cyborg problem from the very beginning.
Likewise, pay attention to the Hunter-Warriors introductory explanation, because it emphasizes all guns being banned in Iron City. It’s good for world building when you consider the mechanized heavily armed machines walking about – but even better when you take into consideration Alita’s flashbacks and the weapons her people used.
All of this shows great detail in writing.
This is not to say the movie is without its flaws.
One of the biggest plot holes is Doctor Ido, who really withholds a lot of information from Alita for the convenience of plot. It seems like every time Alita crosses a new threshold of self-discovery, Doctor Ido reveals a new tidbit of information he’d withheld about her past. The story provides enough reasons to provide hesitation of trust between the two, mostly that Alita’s incredibly dangerous, but the two have such a strong daughter/father relationship that most of the time, Ido gives into her when she simply asks.
Also, I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t a fan of motorball. Visually it was breathtaking, but there were moments reminiscent of The Phantom Menance and podracing to me, where I thought to myself: why is this even here? Then I realized it was because it’s a big part of the anime adaptation, so it’s essential to the grand overarching story. I thought it was cool but not ultimately necessary for the hero’s journey.
Likewise, that love story between Alita and Hugo works on paper, but I thought was weaker in the actual execution of the film. Keean Johnson tries his best, but there are some very awkward moments I can’t help but think was related to the mixture of motion capture and live action performance. Though I think for story’s sake, he fits the role of ‘object of affection’ rather well.
Finally, there’s several other amazing cameos I want to spoil, but the first rule about secret cameos is that we should never talk about them. So instead, I’ll talk about Nova. His story as the behind the scenes threat makes him a prototypical villain in the stylings of the Emperor to Darth Vader. Yet, he wasn’t really all that necessary in this movie. As Vector held the menacing villain role on his own, like Darth Vader to the Emperor… oh wait, I see what they’re going with here.
Nova’s role is really meant to tie-in the Alita’s backstory to the main storyline, but the movie leaves the conflict utterly unresolved – the only hopes of seeing a resolution being a sequel that at this rate, will probably never be made.
Movies are meant to be a visual experience and Alita does a great job of that, showcasing some of the best in 3D filmmaking. I’d compare it to Avatar but that would be a disservice, as the movie also features stellar acting, on point editing, and well executed directing – going above and beyond a traditional Science Fiction film. With an ethnically diverse cast picked by Robert Rodriguez (The El Rey network owner strives for diversity in entertainment and to get more Hispanics in cinema).
Now, adapting a screenplay written by James Cameron, is a herculean task. He has a lot of notes, which is why I’m impressed with the story. The only qualm I had about this film, is that it’s two hours when it should be three to four… but realistically, people wouldn’t watch that.
You’re getting the best of what Robert Rodriguez does as a director. Plus, you get a script by James Cameron, and a blockbuster level adaption of a beloved technopunk manga.
I don’t know what else to say but for the future of good cinema’s sake:
PLEASE GO AND WATCH THIS MOVIE!!!
Final Score: 9.3/10
Eventual Directors Extended Cut: 9.8/10 (Yes, I’m predicting it)