Alita: Battle Angel knows exactly what kind of film it is. At one point during its two hour runtime, surprisingly brisk for a big budget Hollywood blockbuster these days, Alita (Rosa Salazar) straight up offers another person her heart. She goes so far as to remove it from her mechanical chest, holding it in her hand as it slowly beats. “All or nothing,” she tells her love interest Hugo (Keann Johnson), “That’s who I am.” And that concise statement feels like Alita: Battle Angel making its own mission statement.
One of the biggest spotlights of Alita: Battle Angel is James Cameron’s involvement. While he didn’t direct the film himself, calling up genre maestro Robert Rodriguez to take those reins, you can absolutely see his fingerprints all over the final product. Every technical component is astonishingly detailed and it feels like Cameron and Rodriguez have pushed boundaries with some of their technical achievements. This is one of the first blockbusters in a long time that absolutely deserves to be seen in theaters, on the biggest screen possible, with a killer sound system and maybe even some 3D glasses if you’re feeling particularly adventurous (I was, and I walked away pleasantly surprised). Alita‘s all-or-nothing approach means that it’s not simply content to be a big budget sci-fi film, but instead proposes that if films have budgets this extravagant, we should use them to make sure what’s offered is of the highest quality. There’s some great cinematography on display to amplify all those visuals, and the action sequences are downright spectacular, clearly storyboarded beforehand and then expertly executed afterwards. It’s all or nothing.
So it’s a bit of a shame that the narrative isn’t quite up to snuff with the masterful technical filmmaking. It’s less a building narrative and more a string of circumstances and episodic tension. That does wonders for the world building, and Iron City is probably one of the most fully-realized fictional worlds since George Lucas helmed the Star Wars prequels. At the same time, it’s a bit detrimental to character development and takes away from a building sense of momentum. But it’s not ineffective stuff, either. In fact, Cameron and Rodriguez wisely lean into some of the more elemental components of storytelling and their broad strokes feel appropriate for a story of this scope. Many lambast Avatar for its mawkish plot, but it’s still an effective way to create audience involvement and frame the fantastical visuals in a way that doesn’t entirely feel like the filmmakers just wanted to put pretty pictures up on the screen, even if that’s probably the case. Besides, each new development in Alita pushes its worldview forward, and it’s endlessly fascinating. The whole thing just feels lived-in, and so it’s pretty easy to forgive the film’s tendency to act like a kid in a candy shop, always running to the next big set piece or crazy visual idea.
The film is based off the manga series Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro. Having read it before, the adaptation here is incredibly faithful. In fact, the film is the closest we’ve come to a true live action take on a manga or anime, and that’s not for nothing. Anyways, the plot is really straightforward. The world is separated in two, with the grand, luxurious city of Zalem hovering above the hodgepodge Iron City, even going so far as to dump its trash down onto Iron City. But everybody wants to go to Zalem, enticed by its riches. One day, cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) uncovers the head of an advanced cyborg from the waste under Zalem. He gives her a new body and a new name, Alita, as she cannot remember who she was before Ido recovered her. It soon becomes apparent that Alita, who is the most advanced piece of technology ever created, is of greater significance than even she knows. Everybody either wants her dead or under their control. All the while, Alita slowly falls in love with Hugo and yearns for a truly human existence.
So, nothing especially new or game-changing here. But I’ll confess that I’m a fan of great, junky sci-fi that’s bigger on visuals and ideas than it is on plot or characters. That would explain my undying love for 2017’s criminally underrated and under-watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and partially accounts for my revived love for the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Alita: Battle Angel has all that in spades. It’s got an involving world that looks sumptuous on the screen. The characters have just enough definition to register. And the action – oh, the action! – is absolutely stellar. There’s a fictional sport called Motorball that’s lifted from the pages of the manga. It’s like roller derby, but with giant cyborgs and androids who are keen to tear one another apart in order to win as they whiz around a rink on turbo-fueled skates. This leads to the film’s best moment, where Alita plays the game and is told by Ido that her competition has been paid off. They’re all going to try and kill her. So of course she fights back. And it’s one of the greatest action sequences ever conceived. This sequence alone is absolutely worthy of the full price of admission. There’s a fluidity and spatial awareness to all the action in Alita: Battle Angel that is sadly uncommon in other blockbuster films. Not only can you see everything and can tell what’s going on, but everything feels choreographed like an impressive, balletic dance of sorts.
Of course, another thing that elevates Alita: Battle Angel and many other big budget sci-fi films is that it’s packed to the brim with lofty themes. Centering the story is a classist power struggle between Zalem and Iron City that feels reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. In the film, everybody in Iron City wishes to reach Zalem, which is seemingly tethered by large cables that worm into the earth so it doesn’t float away. It’s supposed to be luxurious. But we never see it, and neither do the citizens, so we’re simply swayed by the rumors. The only problem is that it’s incredibly hard to reach Zalem. You either make deals with the devil, in the form of Vector (Ali) in this story, or you win at Motorball, an extremely dangerous sport that might cost your life and/or limb. But the Tower of Babel itself was a foolish construction, an attempt by an ungrateful people to attain a higher existence and usurp God himself. Iron City’s struggle feels similar, but here it’s certainly more tragic because of how desperate some people are for the “better life” promised. By the end of the film, Alita comes to realize that Zalem is no haven but a destructive bastion that tears people apart simply by existing above them. It becomes something that must be destroyed.
The human body is another major topic. In some ways, the film feels very horror-driven in its exploration of body modification and extrapolation, because it’s almost never shown in a favorable light. Never mind the fact that this might be the most disturbing PG-13 film ever made, with some truly grotesque and macabre imagery involving body parts that probably missed out on being rated R because there’s no blood; that actually makes it even more unnerving. Because part of Alita‘s thematic exploration is in what it means to have a “human existence.” If we don’t bleed, isn’t that inhuman? If we modify our bodies with machinery, what does that mean for natural order? The blend of metal and flesh is either tragic or horrific. Tragic, because many citizens in Iron City have to have limbs replaced by machinery due to the harsh work conditions, and horrific because some people wish to have their bodies modified so that they can be even more powerful. Never mind the fact that human body parts are often sought after as a commodity. Early on, there’s a subplot involving killer cyborgs who massacre young women so they can sell their organs on the black market. Vector proves that this is also the one way to Zalem, as materials to be experimented on, revealing the fate of a particular character who is now nothing but eyeballs, brains, and lungs in a jar.
What does that mean for Alita, who yearns to be human but is completely robotic? She’s the most advanced cyborg ever created, fully capable of human thought, emotion, and sensory. By all accounts, Alita is fully autonomous, but she is also fragile, her body capable of being destroyed and her being kept alive only by the complex brain in her head. How can she aspire to be human if her physical properties suggest she’s anything but? Of course she’s an impressive facsimile. But there’s always something just off about her. But Alita learns that being human is less about your relationship to the flesh than it is about the individual’s soul. I’m not assuming that a robot has such a thing, but since Isaac Asimov wrote about androids and cyborgs, it’s been a lofty question proposed by the best sci-fi films. It’s also usually never answered. That feels right. How do you provide a satisfying answer? Alita at least proposes that which makes us human is not some physical property, but our ability to connect with something spiritual.
As Alita learns this, she changes. Her first body is frail and small, that of a child’s. She looks like a doll brought to life. But her maturation comes with her resolve to standup to evil. Her baptism of sorts comes from a scene where Alita uses the blood of a recently slain innocent as warpaint to fight against their assailant. Her purity is gone and she is a child no more. But that first body must be destroyed so that she can be placed inside her second one, a suit developed by those who created her. It changes shape based on how Alita sees herself, and now, she is more mature and womanly. This allows her to be capable of much more amazing feats, but Dr. Ido warns that should this body be destroyed, there is no replacement. That sounds strikingly more human than before, when Alita’s body was a step up from porcelain. Her body is stronger now, but even more vulnerable.
Just about the only thing that doesn’t fully work or at least function in some effective capacity is Alita’s relationship with Hugo. On paper, it probably looks great. But in execution, it fails to register as strongly as it should. Partly, this is because Keann Johnson is pretty terrible in the role. He’s simply never believable. There’s no real sense of chemistry there. It becomes hard to really invest in the character and his fate. And that’s important, because of how willing Alita is to help him – she even offers him her heart, remember? It’s the story’s main emotional through-line, and if it had stuck the landing, it would’ve cemented Alita’s “transformation” from weapon to individual as even more potent.
But Rosa Salazar, giving Andy Serkis a run for his money in one of the greatest motion capture performances thus far, makes most of it work. In fact, even though Alita is mostly a blank slate, perhaps by design, Salazar does wonders making her empathetic. Besides, it’s hard not to be taken with Alita, who goes from doe-eyed to battle-hardened by the end. She’s all or nothing, just like the film named after her. What Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t have in its plotting, it more than makes up for with its big ideas and stellar filmmaking. Perhaps it will never be remembered as one of the Great Sci-Fi Pictures. But that’s an incredibly high bar. Instead, take Alita: Battle Angel for what it’s worth: proof that the movies truly can take you anywhere, and show you anything. Sometimes we need that reminder, and from a film that is so enthusiastic about those possibilities.