By Federico Sierra
Based on Japanese artist Yukito Kishiro’s manga, Alita: Battle Angel tells a futuristic story of a young cyborg (with a human brain and heart in a robotic body) who wakes up without a memory of her identity. Much like the half-human, half-robot protagonist, Alita: Battle Angel is a hybrid of a movie that blends technological marvel with dramatic narrative.
Canadian filmmaker James Cameron is best known for pushing the boundaries of special effects to enhance his complex cinematic ambitions. When Cameron first came across Kishiro’s manga in the early 2000s, he realized the cinematic potential it had and began developing an adaptation for the big screen. Cameron, however, decided to channel his wizardry as a director on Avatar and its upcoming handful of sequels, while searching for another director who could do justice to his script for Alita: Battle Angel. The role was eventually given to Robert Rodriguez, an American director with a similar talent to Cameron’s, to immerse his audience in futuristic worlds while keeping them emotionally invested in his character’s experience of these worlds.
Alita: Battle Angel is set in the dystopic future of the 26th century, where the surface of the planet has turned into a decaying city of metallic junk known as Iron City. For the residents of Iron City, every day is a battle to survive, but the sight of the Sky City, which floats above them, is enough to fill them with hope and dreams. The Sky City, also known as Zalem, is the last remaining metropolis in the planet where only the wealthiest and most privileged get a chance to live, and whose expensive trash drops down on Iron City.
Scavenging among the scrap heap, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a human head with a functioning brain which he brings back to his lab and attaches to a robotic body. The head belongs to Alita (Rosa Salazar), who wakes up to realize that she doesn’t know what happened to her, let alone who she is.
The relationship between Dr. Ido and Alita is very similar to that of Geppetto and Pinocchio. Alita reminds Dr. Ido to his deceased daughter, and after he brings her back to life, he can’t help but to protect her as if she was his own daughter. Most of their dialogues serve to explain the dos and don’ts of this complex world to the audience; but to Alita, the words of Dr. Ido are the lessons and counsel a father would give to his own child. Alita embodies a Pinocchio-like daughter figure to Dr. Ido as he guides her in her quest to find a purpose beyond the artificiality of her body. But the world is a tough place and finding oneself within it might be a dangerous endeavour that may end up corrupting one’s soul.
The world created by Rodriguez and Cameron is a great metaphor to what it’s like to grow up in a society where it’s so easy to trade our dreams for our humanity. The clearest example of this is the character of Hugo (Keean Johnson), an all-human teenage assistant to Dr. Ido. He and Alita develop a cute relationship, where he reveals his only dream is to live up in the Sky City. Alita becomes enamoured of Hugo; she sees in him a humble human with ambition and optimism. But Alita’s naïve attraction towards Hugo has k ept her from finding the criminal activities he is involved in as means to achieve his dreams.
The main focus to develop the character of Alita gets sidetracked when more characters are introduced. Having some of these side characters played by celebrated actors like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly further distract the personal element the movie had built thus far to explore the identity of Alita. There’s also an additional subplot involving a popular sport known as Motorball, a gladiatorial race on skates which grants its winners a one-way ticket to the Sky City. By attempting to juggle so many ideas at once, Alita: Battle Angel halts its epic sci-fi prowess and suddenly feels like a bland exploitation of spectacle.
Alita: Battle Angel had the potential to match thought-provoking sci-fi movies like the recent Blade Runner 2049, but instead it fumbles like a reimagining of The Hunger Games dystopian scenario.
Despite the abundance of these faltering elements, Alita: Battle Angel works best when it follows its young protagonist. Alita is the beating heart of the movie, both in character and performance. Her journey captivated my attention and I was curious to see who she would grow up to become; so much that I didn’t even stop to consider that Salazar’s performance was 90% reproduced with CGI (employing the same performance-capture technique that was used to bring Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings series.) Although this is Rosa Salazar’s first time in a leading role, the young actress communicates the nuances of waking up to experience life for the first time with subdued talent.
At first glance Alita: Battle Angel may seem like a science fiction movie, but in this case the genre only serves as an excuse to display visual effects of the most sophisticated calibre. Buried deep underneath the technological achievement, there lies a coming-of-age story of a girl and her father figure, as they both learn to trust in one another to find the inner strength it takes to survive in a hopeless world.
The movie might put off the part of the audience that is looking for an illuminating story beyond simple entertainment. But if you manage to overlook its cliché plot points and let yourself be bedazzled by the ground-breaking engineering the filmmakers employed to tell Alita’s journey of self-discovery, you might find yourself hoping for a sequel.
All images were sourced from the Alita: Battle Angel trailer.