Alita: Battle Angel film full review
Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of a cyborg who (re)gains consciousness after cybernetic surgeon and (subsequently) father-figure Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) salvages Alita’s brain and core from a scrap yard – a scrap yard that collects waste from an elite colony who live, quite literally, above the rest in a gravity-defying spacecraft suspended over the city.
Alita (Rosa Salazar), now rebooted with a new body, must navigate the throws of adolescence and identity, complicated by a past life she struggles to recall but which leaves her with deadly combat skills.
While the premise of reanimating a found brain into an assembled body re-imagines the canonical trope of Frankenstein’s monster, this sense of assemblage is more far reaching than plot alone.
The film combines a few creative forces: first there’s Yukito Kishiro, who wrote the original Japanese manga series Gunnm in the 1990s, then producer James Cameron who also wrote the screenplay, and finally Robert Rodriguez, who directed the film. (Find out if the film has a post-credit scene in our dedicated article).
This exchange of hands may explain the resulting bric-a-brac of competing character objectives, plots, and ultimately visions.
Those expecting the grease and grime of a cyberpunk world seething with vice and violence won't find it in Alita: Battle Angel. In contrast, the film is fairly sterile and inoffensive, which may disappoint Robert Rodriguez fans who expect a CGI crossbreed between Sin City (2005) and Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk classic Akira (1988).
That’s because Alita targets a teen demographic with themes that resonate most with those on the cusp on adulthood: the search for identity, the impulsive self-dissolution of first love, and for young women perhaps now more than ever, the desire to assert oneself in a male-dominated world.
No doubt, Alita is strong – both physically and mentally. Her combat skills outdo any male threat she’s faced with such as Zapan, Amok and the Goliath-like Grewishka, and her willpower to overcome is what carries her through the narrative.
While the film doesn’t underplay the feminist strength of its protagonist, it does distract the audience’s focus from it by playing up Alita’s love interest with Hugo (Keean Johnson), a local teen who scavenges bionic limbs for the black market.
Alita's existential drive for self-discovery quickly gets overwritten by an instinctive desire to protect Hugo though they have just met. Her purpose shifts to being his combative protector, instead of pursuing her original journey into self-discovery.
The relationship leads Alita somewhat to a dead end, which only reinforces the feeling that the character prioritizes a meaningless pursuit without really furthering her own purpose.
Fans of the original will recognize the film combines and condenses the first four volumes of the series. Those unfamiliar with the source will find that much like the character’s intentions, the narrative zips and zigzags, rarely offering a beat to absorb key relationships, histories and motivations. All of these are glossed over as new twists and revelations are made.
The villains Alita faces are unstable too. Each is often a surrogate for a more powerful one further up the hierarchy, ultimately leading to Nova, a mysterious super-villain whom we barely see, frustratingly.
Alita: Battle Angel attempts to tell a story that is no doubt complex, but struggles to parse it in a way that offers a clear focus and progress. The film moves quickly through a complicated narrative that deserves more time. Yet it’s easy to lose sight of this when you’re enjoying supremely slick fight sequences in a hyper-real CG universe. It's a film that tries to run before it can walk.