Alita: Battle Angel begins with Dyson Ito (Christoph Waltz), doctor to cyborgs, scavenging through a junkyard full of spare parts in order to find anything he can use. What better way to start a film than with a metaphor about itself? Just like Dr. Ito, director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer/co-producer James Cameron sift through the remnants of established sci-fi and cyberpunk properties in order to glue together a recognizable and cohesive narrative within the confines of its genre. Considering the talent involved, it’s not surprising that the finished product is a frequently fun and kinetic, visually pleasing sci-fi/actioner, albeit one that doesn’t have a single new or fresh part embedded in it. Again considering the talent involved, that feels like a lost opportunity.
Based on the popular manga, Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel mostly takes its visual cues and narrative structure from a 1993 anime adaptation by the same name. That anime is barely an hour long, yet manages to pack in a sprawling cyberpunk universe with a deep and complex lore that supports whatever over-the-top tech fetish cyber action it throws at you. The story follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), whom Dr. Ito finds during his junk hunt and brings back to life. Her brain is human, but the rest of her is artificial. Just like a cyborg version of Jason Bourne, she doesn’t remember her past, but has supreme ass-kicking instincts, leading Ito to suspect some sinister military use in her past.
Right off the bat, we get a bundle of cyberpunk anime tropes for the price of one, as Alita struggles to figure out her identity. What the word “identity” means in a world where people are more machine than human? Is she human? What is human? Of course, one can’t expect the intimately detailed level of scrutiny into these existential themes the way, say, the splendid 2001 sci-fi anime Metropolis did, since the $200 million budget requires an easily digestible piece of PG-13 mass entertainment that can’t afford to be too heady. Instead, things are kept light and nimble, with a plentiful supply of admittedly exciting fight and chase scenes kept on hand.
The future world that Battle Angel inhabits is the lovechild of Blade Runner and Mad Max, a grimy post-apocalyptic city that’s also a grand, overpopulated cyberpunk metropolis. It may be derivative as a design choice, but it’s more visually creative than the trailer park Jenga that was the economically struggling future city in Ready Player One. Apart from Alita gradually figuring out her ass-kicking skills, there’s another clear reason for giving the character amnesia: So she can be used as an exposition dump to settle the audience into the story’s world and the hodgepodge of various sub-plots that co-screenwriters James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez cram into a two-hour runtime.
First, there’s the overall plot of Alita trying to figure out who she is. That’s interjected by her journey of turning into a bounty hunter for the elite, who live in a utopia in the sky that everyone in the ground city yearns to reach one day. I’d accuse Battle Angel of ripping off Elysium, but remembering that the manga and the anime came first, it looks like it was Neill Blomkamp who was a bad boy. On top of that, there’s an overarching plot about a vicious game that closely resembles Rollerball. (It might not be a new concept, but it’s better than 2002’s crappy remake.) Apparently, the winner of this sport will be taken to the city in the sky, and Alita becomes an athlete for a chance to get there and find answers about herself. With it already taking half an hour to inform Alita, and therefore the audience, about the ins and outs of the ground city, sitting through another half hour of exposition to cover the rules and regulations of bounty hunting and cyborg rollerball before we get to the real meat of the action creates a rather dull first half.
However, when the fighting finally begins, Battle Angel gets its metallic ass in gear. Rodriguez pushes the confines of the PG-13 rating to create some genre- and source-material-appropriate hack-and-slash gruesomeness with a significant amount of cyborg bodies split in half, decapitated and torn to pieces. The “blood” is blue, and if it had retained its original crimson color, Battle Angel would have ended up a hard-R. But since the lovely folks at MPAA have such a binary worldview, as long as you don’t see red, just hack away. In this case, this works in the film’s favor. Knowing the rating, I expected to be sorely disappointed with a watered-down adaptation, but it surprised me with its graphic violence and visceral intensity.
We have to mention the uncanny valley elephant in the room: The decision to use motion capture to make Alita’s face completely CG so that her big eyes can be a live-action version of the anime and manga aesthetic. It was jarring when I saw the trailer, and it was hard to pull my attention from it during the real thing. This is pretty much the only choice by Cameron, who insisted on the CG eyes, that adds something new to live-action sci-fi. And yet it’s the film’s biggest distraction. It’s not only the eerie effect of the CG face, which still has some ways to go until it seamlessly blends with real faces, but the aesthetic decision doesn’t make sense, since everyone else in this universe has normal eyes. This choice is at least visually supported a bit during flashback sequences, but is never fully explained.
For fans of the manga and anime, there isn’t much in the way of new material to be found here, though nor is it likely to grate on one’s fandom to the extent that the Ghost of the Shell live-action adaptation did. For fans of futuristic sci-fi/action, it should provide an initially engaging but ultimately forgettable experience. Still, coming from Cameron and Rodriguez, even “forgettable” deserves a look.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Keenan Johnson, Jackie Earle Haley
Release Date: February 15, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.