Many films have asked if a robot intelligence can go beyond its programming and become human – Blade Runner 2049 recently did it as well as it could be done, by also asking how worth it that really is. Those with less taste for Villeneuve’s headier stories probably remember the same line of questioning taking a child’s stance in Wall-E and a pop-cynic’s in Robocop. Alita: Battle Angel is probably the first example I’ve seen of the reverse, in which a robot begins life as an innocent likable human and aspires to become a weapon of war. Can anyone forgive me for not applauding at the end? It’s like if the young boy asked the Iron Giant to choose his fate and he chose to stay a tank.
The film shoots us with confetti guns of exposition: the cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) has lost her memory, and needs things explained to her. I don’t mind this kind of story: it worked really well in Harry Potter. But it worked there because the exposition centered on Harry himself: Hagrid didn’t explain the history of the wizards and the humans and the war with the trolls or whatever, starting centuries ago. We lived all that stuff, with Harry as he discovered it. This kept the universe feeling rich and big. The flashbacks in Alita are so broad that the movie’s universe becomes very small. How’d they manage that?
Even the lackluster Ghost in the Shell (2017) seemed content to exist in a living world. Alita asks Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) where she is, after he finds her in a scrapheap. His explanations begin 300 years ago with an alien robot army, the destruction of the earth’s cities, the survival of the last remaining floating city called Zalem, and the dire predicament of the people living in its shadow in the trashy Iron City. Do you see the problem with that? Why is his perspective so universal, as though he isn’t living down in the broken remains of all that history to begin with? It’s so bluntly an explanation for us that it shrinks the fantasy down to one obligatory sentence of script. It prevents Iron City from coming alive. It would be like if Alita woke up in your house and asked where she was and you began, “Well you see, there was this man named George Washington …” People may think less of the text openings in Blade Runner but they address the audience so the characters don’t have to: they are the aside that keeps us immersed in a world that no longer has to explain itself. And they don’t take up an hour of the film.
Alita keeps coming up with new things to explain – there’s a lot of weird stuff in it. There’s Motorball, which is like hockey crossed with destruction derby, and the hunter-warriors, who track and kill murderers and hang out in saloons, and Zalem, from which the rich descend if they become unworthy. The poor spend their lives aspiring to go to the floating city without any hope of realizing their ambition. A scene communicating these elements – of actual destitution or struggle – would have shown us the world that Alita prefers to just tell us about. Visually, no matter how poor the Iron City is supposed to be, it still seems like a place I’d like to live: complete with motor derbies and corner chocolatiers and taco venders.
With all this stuff, I can see why the manga was well-loved enough to turn into a film. It has a little Trigun in it and a lot of Astro Boy – this is like Astro Boy converted into a fetish outfit. Alita’s suit upgrades feature continuously increasing breasts without any explanation for them. But you won’t hear Hugo (Keean Johnson) complaining, the street urchin with the 26th century equivalent of a road hog who picks up Alita on her first day wandering the city and awkwardly becomes the movie’s love interest. The script by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis wallows luxuriously in this aspect, leading up to rooftop kissies and lines like “I would do anything for you” and so on. Their awkward fumbling culminates in a re-enactment of a particular scene from Titanic that made me giggle self-loathingly through one of the film’s most dramatic moments.
Well, what’s wrong with two people falling in love? The problem is in the writing. When Alita falls in love with Hugo she’s a likeable waif, a Margaret Keene waifu, who shares her tacos with little orphan dogs and makes all kinds of alluring faces as she explores the world like a country girl discovering window-shopping. It’s all very cute and more: it’s brave enough to actually be made for the teen girls that the movie is about. Salazar shines in this early half through totally convincing animation and a whole lot of wonderful shots of her eyes. But as she remembers her past as a mega-weapon and re-discovers her fighting abilities and her directives, she isn’t changed in any way towards Hugo. There’s never a part where she loses interest in him because of her important goals, or doubts her feelings because of her immense power. This becomes awkward in a scene in which she swoons at the window over Johnson’s shirtless body and then pulls out her literal heart to give to him so that he can afford to leave her for the city of wealthy people. Remember that this is after she discovers her power. The movie can handle her killing her enemies in ways grotesque enough to be worthy of Kill Bill, but it can’t seem to muster up enough thinking to wonder how this would affect her. The goal seems to be gender affirmation, as in a scene in which Alita takes the moral high road against a bunch of lay-about bounty hunters (she tries to convince them to join her good fight and then beats them up for laughing at her). We’re supposed to see how cool she is. But conscientiousness and believable change and flaws are cool too.
So is Alita: Battle Angel. The set-pieces are surprisingly well-made: Alita never stoops to the level of a Transformers film in its action, particularly in the Motorball scenes, which are overlong but crunchy and satisfying. Robert Rodriguez knows how to keep us spatially informed; like in his Sin City, hectic action won’t cause you to glaze over in Alita. Alita herself looks creepy and that’s wonderful because Salazar’s ability to make us like her is more significant when it overcomes uncanniness. The motion capture here is on another level, which breaches the uncanny feeling just by being so gung-ho about it. You just start accepting her (maybe you’re scared of what she’d do if you didn’t?). She’s among the best female blockbuster protagonists of recent years: the pouty Captain Marvel and self-righteous Rey don’t come close. The other robots though don’t work for me: they look like photo booth mockups of people poking their heads through forklifts. I kept getting Lost in Space (1997) vibes. It never looks anywhere near as tactile as Stan Winston’s work on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which is a much, much more emotional take on a similar dynamic.
But all these robots and all this stuff and one wonderful performance doesn’t amount to much because the script doesn’t know how to turn basic human interactions into drama (at a certain point we have to wonder if Cameron ever knew this). I’ll give you a few examples. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) is the mother of the girl that Dr. Ido (Waltz) hopes that Alita will replace. Throughout the film, Chiren proves she’s willing to do anything to go back to the city of the wealthy, even building the film’s recurring antagonist (Jackie Earle Haley + Panzer) with the express intention of killing Alita. She rediscovers the mother in herself and saves Alita instead, but only after discovering that her ticket back to the city of the wealthy was a scam. So the film tells us that her heart has reformed, but accidentally obscures it with other revelations. We don’t get a scene where she gives up her dreams of the floating city to save Alita; we get one where she has nothing left to be except a good guy.
This kind of construction – character development we are told about obscured by extra events – is not a nitpick in a story supposedly built around a character’s growth. It’s an example of Alita’s great failure, which is that despite setting up many interesting characters their interactions are never worth it. Hugo gives up his nasty habit of mugging robots for their parts because he loves Alita. But he does so only after he figures out another way to make it to the floating city (which is selling Alita into the Motorball industry, which he does). Alita confronts him about the first thing but not the second. His change of behavior is not a change of heart, which is fine, but the movie acts like it is, which is so frustrating.
Dr. Ido provides the worst example of this. Waltz is as good in this film as he always is: doubtfully charismatic, constantly threatening to start talking in a full German accent. His character is established on guilt: the guilt he has for building the Motorball player that killed his daughter and for living in this city to begin with. He gives the broken Alita his daughter’s robot body: he hopes to allow his daughter to start over through Alita. This is not a noble goal because Alita deserves her own life. The movie explains this, in a weird scene that plays like an insert of Family Matters, the “Don’t be out past 10 and call if you’re going to be late” scene. He has to admit that Alita deserves her own destiny, which is a message for the teenage girls Alita is about: the best thing this movie does is to refrain from turning its heroine into a mockup of a male action hero. She really is a teen girl. This gives audiences the chance to identify with someone that they possibly never have: teenage girls in movies have a type that usually puts them on the end of a machete or in the path of a sleazy kiss. Alita doesn’t make this girl too competent or less petulant: it makes her competence and her petulance earned, and that’s really special.
But this is also where that writing problem becomes disastrous. Dr. Ido may be wrong to project his daughter onto Alita, but he’s not wrong to wish for her to have a life not determined by her past programming. She’s aggressively insistent on enslaving herself to her directives, muscling Dr. Ido and the script out of believing that Alita is more than what it appears to be: a movie where an anime babe punches robots. When Dr. Ido is building her Motorball pads, he should be stricken and terrified: Alita is becoming part of the world he had hoped to absolve himself of. The cycle of destruction is continuing to benefit the people who can punch the hardest, whom he keeps enabling. But the script just doesn’t know this. It doesn’t remember how distraught Ido was or what his history would mean to him, since like the world-building it’s treated like something that you just say to get it over with. Would any parent of a child that died of drug addiction buy their other child the needles? Alita muscles her way into getting what she wants and we’re just supposed to enjoy her defaulting back into being a twee impression of Mecha-Godzilla, instead of wanting more. As if it could feel any less satisfying, the movie ends without an ending; it’s like the first two films of a trilogy crammed together. It ends at the cliffhanger to the conclusion.
Do you think that a rich person deserves to die just because of their wealth? There’s no greater mark of villainy for someone in a Cameron film than their bank account. Do you think that the first person we meet of the opposite sex must be the true love? Do you think that the hero’s actions are right no matter what they are or how they are motivated? Do you think that a person’s genetic origin is more important than anything they experience or believe? If so, then Alita: Battle Angel, like Avatar before it, is more of that unnuanced Cameron finger food that the box office never seems to outgrow. You can be hungry enough to enjoy the nice visuals and the wonderful performance and not notice that it doesn’t pay off and there’s nothing wrong with that. The only thing at stake is your health.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
James Cameron (screenplay)
Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay)
Yukito Kishiro (book)
|Dr. Dyson Ido||Christoph Waltz|
|Dr. Chiren||Jennifer Connelly|
|Grewishka||Jackie Earle Haley|