Alita: Battle Angel is a cyberpunk action film directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Rosa Salazar as Alita. The film is based on a Japanese manga series published in the 1990s called Gunnm (Battle Angel Alita in the English translation) by Yukito Kishiro. The film takes place in the year 2563, 300 years after a devastating interplanetary war known as “The Fall” has left human civilization in ruins. That is, except for Zalem, the last sky city that remained after the war. Iron City dwells on the ground below, where refugees from all across the world congregated to flee the catastrophe. While searching through a scrap pile ejected from Zalem, cyber surgeon Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a disembodied cyborg with a still-living human brain. Taking her home and restoring her with a new body, the cyborg is named Alita by Dr. Ido after she regains consciousness and finds she has no memory of who she is or where she came from.
So begins a film that somehow both left a strong impression on me and struggled to have a clear story to tell. Though suffering from amnesia, Alita’s personality seems intact and she’s excited to explore this world of Iron City that is so strange and new to her. As such, the movie is front-loaded with a lot of exposition about this place, some of it more subtly presented to the audience and a lot more clumsily and direct through the dialogue. That being said, Iron City was a decently captivating setting full of cyborg people and a plethora of mixing cultures, ever in the shadow of Zalem above that teases a better life that most of the destitute denizens aspire to but very few get to reach. I really liked how Zalem was a presence rather than a setting in the film. Its true nature and the people who live there is kept nebulous and vague, upholding the idea that it is such a mystifying, utopian place.
What this movie is about, beyond Alita’s desire to regain her identity, is where things start to get really muddy. Early on Alita learns Dr. Ido is also a Hunter-Warrior, an elite guild of bounty hunters who serve as the only real form of law enforcement in Iron City. During an encounter with three serial killers Alita saves Ido, learning that she instinctively retains knowledge of long forgotten elite combat abilities. This attracts the attention of Nova (Edward Norton), a mad scientist in Zalem who meddles in Iron City by watching events through/inhabiting cyborg minds. Nova wants Alita dead and the surviving killer Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) becomes his champion in this pursuit. So, this becomes the main driving point of conflict in the movie: Nova wants Alita dead. The problem is, Alita isn’t all that aware this is even going on beyond Grewishka’s hatred for her, so her story is pulled this way and that throughout, in pursuit of smaller plot lines that don’t amount to a lot.
Alita begins a romantic relationship with a young man named Hugo (Keean Johnson), becomes a Hunter-Warrior on her own to seek out combat to further jog her memory, and begins to try her hand at Motorball, a dangerous yet popular sport in Iron City, in the hopes of helping Hugo achieve his dream of going to Zalem. In some of these cases conflict arises as a result of Nova’s desire to kill her, but another antagonist emerges among the Hunter-Warriors when she stirs up trouble with that group, which actually ends up having a greater impact on her situation than any of the machinations of Nova.
Unfortunately, these factors never really coalesce into something satisfying. Subplots get forgotten or conclude unceremoniously without much effective buildup. The situation does get resolved, after a fashion, but it is so open-ended with so much left to do that the movie doesn’t really have an ending. It’s more of a “To be continued” that I’m not even sure will ever come.
What I will give it credit for is that in spite of everything, I actually do want to see a sequel. One thing I think the movie handled really well was Alita’s past. Some of it was revealed in meaningful ways, but they were still only really snapshots that didn’t give the complete picture, only teased it. How she ended up in a scrap heap is still unknown by the end of the film and I sincerely want to know more about how she got there from where she was in the fragments we do see.
I can’t give a hearty recommendation to see Alita: Battle Angel, but it’s not without its charm. The characters are fairly rote, but not vapid. The world is visually pleasing and a fun spectacle to behold, and the action was amped up and cheesy in a way that was fun to watch. I thought the more elaborately mechanized cyborgs were well designed. and the visual effects, especially for Alita, were quite good too. Alita’s appearance was a little uncanny, being CGI with larger than normal eyes, but for a cyborg character I thought that quality really worked in its favour. It’s just a shame that the story was juggling so many plot threads at once without them coming together effectively. Most of them dropped to the floor with a dull thud, as it were.
Images’ source here.