I’m not exactly familiar with Alita: Battle Angel, but like Akira, I’m aware of its impact on pop-culture. I was curious to see what Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron had to offer with this film. The legendary James Cameron wrote this adaptation, but arguably hasn’t really done anything “great” since Titanic. Avatar was, fine, but I think its legacy is dependent on the launch of the current version of 3D films, but I digress-I’ll have this conversation with you soon since production on Avatar 2 has recently been completed. In the end, Alita was visually stunning, but at the same time somewhat lacking. It’s ultimately an okay movie to watch on the road to Cyberpunk 2077, but it’s decidedly low on content that makes the genre so impactful and important.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place in the year 2563, some 300 years after a cataclysmic war dubbed “The Fall”. In the wreckage, humanity amassed and rebuilt at Iron City, a hodgepodge city underneath the last remaining sky city, Zalem. It’s here where Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a broken cyborg body with a very intact human brain. He takes the brain and gives it a new body, which is the “birth” of Alita (Rosa Salazar), a girl with a bad case of amnesia and a very distracting pair of distracting CGI eyes. She can speak and do normal tasks but has no idea who she was prior in life. She meets Hugo (Keenan Johnson), a teenager who secretly hunts down cyborgs for parts in order to sell them to Vector (Mahershala Ali). Hugo is definitely the weak link in the movie as the romantic love interest and is ultimately quite bland. Meanwhile, we learn the good doctor’s motives for creating Alita stems from the loss of his daughter, which caused his ex-wife (Jennifer Connley) to begin working for Vector.
But wait, there’s more. Alita learns about the high stakes game of Motorball and the bounty-hunter society and serial killing cyborgs. Oh, and there’s the backstory about the war and why there’s a floating city for the elite when the poor and scum of society live below. Yeah, there’s a lot going on here, which is the main problem with Alita. It’s cool, and there’s certainly potential and it’s certainly fun, but it never tries to be anything other than a two-hour action movie. It’s overflowing with so many subplots, characters and factions than its limited runtime could possibly handle.
I also found the CGI to be quite distracting. I understand the CGI work on Alita’s eyes were meant to evoke a more anime appearance, but since no other character has this effect, it only makes the uncanny valley feel of it that much more distracting. Likewise, the floating head of some of the cyborgs, such as Zapan, which are the only human parts remaining, are sometimes laughably campy. This is yet another example of why practical effects need to make a comeback.
When it comes to the action, the set pieces are extremely fast, flashy and unpractical. This makes it feel less like a typical action film and more like a live action anime, and is one of the film’s most entertaining aspects. It’s great to see Alita’s ancient cyborg body flip and dodge multiple attacks at once, but this does hurt the action in one big way. Alita becomes a video game character here, with all the cheats turned on. There’s no real tension in these fights because Alita is never challenged. We never feel like she’s vulnerable or at risk, because from her first fight, she’s mopping the floor with much larger and more experienced foes.
The movie never explores the concept of humanity or the soul either. I can’t speak to the source material as I’m not familiar with it, but considering how augmentations and the replacement of body parts is so prevalent in the movie, one might expect the script to ask the question “what is human”? What makes science fiction, and by extension, the cyberpunk genre, so interesting is that it asks these questions. What is a soul and how much can you take away from yourself until there’s nothing left? Is there such a thing as “more human than human?” The film never pauses to ask these questions and I think that was a missed opportunity, as it keeps Alita rooted as a generic action flick with cool visuals.
All of these problems could potentially be due to the film’s running time. Perhaps if it were a television series, it would have given us more time to explore these themes while also delivering a healthy dose of action. A leisurely pace allows us to learn more about this bounty hunting society, why Motorball is such a big deal, why are the people not revolting against those in the city, and who Ed Norton’s mysterious character, Nova, was at the end of the movie. There’s just so many questions and this kind of story benefits by being slower. Some may think that television would have limited Alita’s visual style. For those people, I’d recommend seeing Raised By Wolves.
There will be a lot more Cyberpunk stories to talk about before Cyberpunk 2077’s release. For now, if you are interested in Alita, take it for what it is. It’s a fun action romp with a unique visual style, but is lacking in depth or any real stakes. If you’re looking for something with a little more depth, then the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell may be a better way to spend your time.