Alita: Battle Angel frames the titular hero through the exploration of first love informing her journey as she uncovers her past, defines her identity and embarks towards her future. In any other context, this love story might feel a little too broad or a little too hokey for its own good, but it feels awkward and corny in a way that is endearingly relatable. Experiencing something this pure for the first time and not quite knowing how to present yourself so you act clumsy and goofy captures a microcosm of love through an optimistically genuine lens and that is why it works so well. This is not one of those too-cool-for-school blockbusters in which the characters are constantly winking at the camera to let us in on the joke, where the filmmaking and writing feel focus tested to death in order to provide the maximum fun because they mistake fun for emotion. No, this film feels geeky and uncool and proud of it. Mainstream blockbusters need more of this and thankfully Alita: Battle Angel delivers.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez with a script by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, and based on the Gunnm manga from the early ’90s later repackaged as Battle Angel Alita, Rodriguez establishes a futuristic world in the 26th century divided by social class. On the ground is Iron City – a diverse melting pot for the lower class – struggling for survival while above (literally and figuratively) is the floating city of Zalem occupied by society’s social elite. Weaving multiple narratives together to examine the dichotomy between the two places without ever showing what Zalem looks like, Alita is able to explore this widening class divide and the elimination of a middle class by its simple setup. Rodriguez allows this film to be a dissertation on class struggle and the systemic ways in which a system will keep you in check without ever lecturing us on this idea. And the conduit for us in this world is Alita, who will guide us through this world of inequality.
Alita (Rosa Salazar), a cyborg teenage girl, starts off the film with amnesia, unable to remember her past, as she wakes up in an unfamiliar bed with an unfamiliar body attached to her core, and her initial moments of waking up and exploring her body is filled with this empathetic sense of nervous joy as we experience this through her perspective. Thrust into this unknown world she meets Doc Ido (Christoph Waltz) who explains how he found her in a scrapyard and put her into the body she finds herself in. Effectively becoming a perfect audience conduit for this ambitious new setting the rest of the film chronicles her exploits as a teenage girl getting pulled in multiple directions, uncovering the world, falling in love and discovering who she is in the process. That might sound tedious and familiar, but Rodriguez remixes this familiar narrative in order to explore new territory.
Right off the bat, what feels different about this film is how it explores Alita’s relationship to her own body, and how her identity is linked to her body, and not to her memories. Usually, in these types of stories, they’re about existentialism in regards to memory and identity, and whether it’s possible for cyborgs to be human. What makes us human? And typically that question is relegated to esoteric ideas of memory, sleep, dreaming, and other specific experiences that link us to humanity. Alita is different, however, because this is not a film questioning Alita’s humanity; It is instead about exploring her humanity in regards to her relationship to her cybernetic body, and how her humanity is found in the link between the two.
When Ido finds Alita in the scrapyard, he reconstructs her in a body foreign from her natural one and right from the jump, Alita knows something doesn’t feel right. Her movements are slightly jilted, the way she interacts with the world just feels a little off-kilter. The way this film explores her identity isn’t through her amnesia, trying to link memories and experience with her sense of self (although the film does flashback to her previous life from time to time), it instead treats identity and humanity through our subconscious link to the physical part of ourselves.
Not superficially but in an intrinsic belonging sense, so later on, when she is put into a new body there is this link between her and this physical part of herself that just clicks into place, and she can finally exist as herself for this first time completing the self-discovery aspect of her journey. There are multiple lines throughout the film that refer to this body as her identity, so even though she doesn’t quite have a grasp on her past yet and doesn’t know who she once was, she is still able to exist as herself because she is in a body that supports her image of who she is. The way she exists in the world slightly shifts, with the way her body moves just feeling more natural. Between the first body and second body, Rosa Salazar’s performance shifts ever so slightly. Her connection to herself just feels right, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why.
Even though it is obvious that Alita is a bigger deal than she thinks she, there is still this youthful exuberance about her that makes it easy to root for, She isn’t burdened by the weight of a mythical prophecy nor tasked with becoming some hero of legend Instead, her character can simply experience life, just like the rest of us. So when she does fall in love with a boy (Keean Johnson’s Hugo) or becomes more rebellious staying out past curfew or becomes enamored by a sport called Motorball (a Mad Max style game of futuristic roller derby) these moments are effective for character development and world building despite serving little narrative function in the macro sense. Small moments like Alita tasting oranges for the first time or telling Hugo “I’m doing this for us, remember” work because it is delivered with the utmost sincerity. At times it feels like it was pulled from a rom-com, yet contextually it translates because it simply feels like life.
When Rodriguez does introduce the central conflict and transitions from the world of adolescent innocence to the dark adult world of hunter-warriors (the future’s bounty hunter justice system) and the action hits, her peril feels palpable because as a character Alita feels authentic. Closing on the precipice of a climactic encounter revealing the big bad to be a big name actor who shall not be named, this cliffhanger conclusion while undoubtedly unsatisfactory to some remains effective because Alita: Battle Angel invests so much of its run time in developing the world and its titular character. Rodriguez and Cameron are gambling on Alita becoming the next big intellectual property; a bold strategy befitting of someone like James Cameron whose ambition has never been questioned. Hopefully, the studio allows them to see their vision through.
Unfortunately not every character is afforded the same amount of development but the supporting cast makes do with what they are given. Mahershala Ali has this presence about him as Vector, turning a one-note villainous role into a constant presence throughout the film, and his final scene in this film is flat out delightful. Jennifer Connoly’s Chirin is the ex-wife of Doc Ido, and while she isn’t given a lot of screen time, her character arc ends with this powerful poignancy in regards to who she once was versus who she has become. Her character speaks to this idea of Zalem and its aspirational perception influencing Chirin’s perspective.
Hugo is your standard pretty boy love interest, however, due to his dream of getting to Zalem through any means necessary, and how that informs his relationship with Alita, his character becomes an of systemic oppression and how false promises will lead you down a road hard to recover from. His specific narrative thread explores Iron City’s relationship to Zalem and Zalem ’s perception from the people that permeate this city on Earth. Where his character goes in relation to Alita and where their story ends up becomes a tragic love story in many ways, and there is a sadness that erupts from the screen as their story is concluded. Due to the fact that their relationship is almost entirely perceived from Alita’s eyes with Rosa Salazar’s mocap performance acting as the soul of this film, we buy their love because Salazar sells the hell out of it literally taking out her heart from her chest and offering it to him, The love story can be perceived as a weakness, but there is more to that story than meets the eye.
This world is filled out with these cybernetic human hybrid type characters. Whether just in the background or at the forefront of the story, and it does add to this sense of a world beyond the scope of what we’re shown. One of those characters is this smarmy hunter-warrior names Zapan, played deliciously by Ed Skrein, this pretty boy Cyborg who spends all of his money on his very human face, and spends all his time getting embarrassed by Alita in delightful ways. Skrien plays the character with gusto and while not all these secondary pieces are major factors in the grand scheme of things they add depth to the grand world Rodriguez and Cameron are trying to create.
Alita: Battle Angel is a masterpiece of blockbuster, big-budget filmmaking, with massive action scenes built on an architectural design that makes sense in relation to where the characters are in relation to one another and how the camera moves in its fluidity. Yet where the film truly shines is in its characterization of its main character, and how the people that permeate her world are affected by her existence. This movie has something to say about class struggle in regards to the widening wage gap juxtaposing the poor with the rich, but more than that, it is an intimate exploration of a young girl and her relationship to her own body; this idea of the body you’re born in vs the body you’re supposed to be in, and how that relates to the identity of the character. Rosa Salazar infuses Alita with her own personality that feels vibrant and youthful, so instead of feeling lost in the shuffle, Alita feels alive, and that’s’ what matters.
This is a film that embraces its manga structure, infusing the narrative structure and storytelling technique that allows for a movie that never slows down, yet it still gives Alita these moments of reflection and growth that speaks to Rodriguez’s ability as a filmmaker. This movie just works, embracing its goofy origins to tell a poignant story about ideas that reflect societal fears and aspirations. A one of a kind tentpole blockbuster that rises above its many generic peers.