In Alita: Battle Angel, written by Laeta Kalogridis and James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, an amnesiac cyborg discovers her instinct to fight— and uses this key to salvage her memory. (BV 3.0/5.0)
Review by Intern Beatrice Viri
Alita: Battle Angel is an adaptation of the Japanese cyberpunk series Battle Angel Alita/Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. Set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic world where much of the population has robotic parts, Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), an acclaimed cyberphysician, traverses the local scrapyard and stumbles upon the remains of a cyborg girl (Rosa Salazar). Enthralled by his discovery, Ido repairs her, bringing her back to life and dubbing her “Alita,” after his deceased daughter. At first, Alita is a sweet if naïve girl— she’s still getting used to her resurrection and functions, and she does not retain any memory of her past life. She soon meets and becomes enamored with a neighborhood boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) who teaches her about a local sport, motorball, and helps her to become “more human”.
Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer on the loose— one who steals the valuable parts of unsuspecting girls to sell for profit. At first, Alita is terrified that her savior Ido is the evildoer, and she follows him to what, unbeknownst to him, turns out to be a setup with the actual murderers, the main villain being Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). Here, Alita suddenly displays exceptional fighting skills, and is shocked to discover that she instinctively knows an ancient martial art, “Panzer Kunst,” as she sparks a missing piece of her memory. Shocked by her natural penchant for fighting and hoping that action will prompt more memories, she becomes a bounty hunter. Where exactly did Alita obtain her aptitude for fight? And who exactly is she?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is that a woman is the main driving force of action— Alita is constantly saving Hugo and subverting the damsel in distress trope. She is much stronger and more capable than him, even at one point carrying him in the over-the-threshold manner that typical male heroes traditionally carry female love interests. Rosa Salazar’s grueling training is evident in her movements, and the fighting sequences exude adrenaline-pumping excitement. As an action film, the movie is quite successful.
The romance, however, was the principal component of the film, and felt unnecessary. Hugo’s backstory was lacking and devoid of any real depth. Essentially, his character is fanservice, functioning as a love interest to advance the main character’s development. This was actually somewhat refreshing as usually this role is reserved for a woman— but he was a shallow character nonetheless. Furthermore, Alita is a full-on cyborg who has forgotten most of her memories—it doesn’t make sense for her to fall in love so quickly. In her past life, she had been trained only to kill; by what logic does she even have this emotional ability to love?
After watching Alita: Battle Angel, I also went to survey Gunnm, the original OVA series on which Alita is modeled . Gally/Alita’s feelings are somewhat one-sided (I still have reservations about a killing machine being romantically inclined, but both the movie and the OVA attribute this fact to Alita being a teenage girl) and Hugo is way more fleshed out (the manga has more of his backstory).
The side characters in the film were also extremely unmemorable and one-dimensional. It’s a long film in general, and one that mainly focuses on Alita, but if you want actual substance for the side characters, it may serve your interest to check out the original series to see what could have been (or, of course, wait for the sequel). One particular character whose arc was unsatisfying is Chiren (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly), the female villain, who is Ido’s ex-wife with selfish motivations. Not once in the film did she exhibit any warm emotion or “motherly” inclination, but in the film’s climax, this instinct appeared randomly and contradicted her established personality.
Alita: Battle Angel’s visuals are actually very picturesque— the technology and special effects are rich in quality, the viewer is immersed in the futuristic setting, and yet the film also shows the impact of the previous war and provides insights as to why this society has become poor. However, one choice that the designers made—to enlarge Alita’s eyes to exaggerated, cartoonish, and frankly bug-eyed proportions—was incredibly distracting and rather ugly; even in this futuristic world, they seemed extremely unnatural. It was difficult to take high-tension, climactic moments seriously when she looked so ridiculous. Alita is part of an alien race of cyborgs, and this choice was made to differentiate her from the rest and emphasize her “otherness” (which, as an Asian American felt kind of racially insensitive as this film comes from Eastern origins and our eyes are a feature that people still make racist caricatures of). Many of Alita’s other unique physical components, such as her heart or her literal synthetic cyborg body could have illustrated this point. Japanese filmmakers produce live-action anime films all the time, and yet they don’t give actors hideous bug-eyes because anime is simply an art style as opposed to a real-life look.
However, my biggest issue with the film is a bit more general: What is with Hollywood’s obsession with westernizing Eastern media? Are they running out of original ideas? Many Eastern media-makers are flattered by westernization and think of these adaptations as homages (the creator of Gunnm loved Alita) but in the West this fascination isn’t so simple. These Eastern creators live in their respective countries of origin, where they are exposed to their own cultures constantly— and, unlike marginalized filmmakers in the West, don’t have to think about lack of representation or whitewashing in their media. There are some perks to a westernized lens, such as Alita’s more “obvious” diversity when it comes to its supporting characters and extras. For Western audiences, this representation, while still falling short, is important: it is usually not found in Eastern film due to many countries’ (in this case, Japan’s) homogeneity, though racialization in Asia is nuanced and completely distinct from our western understanding of the concept. But this Western obsession with Eastern media feels borderline imperialistic, or at least like an attempt to keep American film dominant.
Even so, stories are not exclusively a certain culture’s, and not all remakes of Eastern media are bad (Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow comes to mind). It’s not as if Alita has historical context that makes it a Japanese story, but issues of whitewashing and cultural appropriation are important to be aware of. Even setting all of that aside, Alita was nothing remarkable—if you like action and futuristic settings, sure, it’s something to pass the time, but this film will be fighting to make a dent in your memory. However, if Alita sparked your interest in Japanese cyberpunk, the film Akira is probably the most iconic of the genre; it served as an inspiration for The Matrix, Inception, and is referenced in Stranger Things. And as per FF2Media’s mission, female-centered series are Bubblegum Crisis or the original Ghost in the Shell (not Hollywood’s awful rendition starring Scarlett Johansson), though they’re a bit old and admittedly, this genre isn’t too popular with female creators.
© Beatrice Viri (02/19/19) FF2 Media
Photos: Christoph Waltz as Dyson Ido in top-left, Rosa Salazar as title character Alita, and Rosa Salazar and Keean Johnson in bottom picture
Photo Credits: Rico Torres as still photographer
Does Alita: Battle Angel pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Barely. The movie’s titular character was the only lead female, and the other female characters barely had any screen time, and even less interaction with Alita; most interactions were male-to-male/female-to-male.