Alita: Battle Angel movie review: ‘Rollerblade Runner’ with a Strong Female Character(TM)

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Alita Battle Angel red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Devoid of personality and soul, this hellish Frankenstein monster of processed entertainment product wallows in a stew of borrowed ideas and imagery and does absolutely nothing fresh with them.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about girls and women; fan of most of James Cameron’s stuff
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Ironically, a movie about a 26th-century robot warrior girl assembled from scavenged bits and pieces and reanimated by a (slightly) mad scientist is a hellish Frankenstein monster of processed entertainment product devoid of personality and soul. (This is probably unfair to Frankenstein’s monster, who had more soul than Frankenstein did, but I’m sticking with the metaphor.) Alita: Battle Angel is an unholy mashup of Blade Runner, Rollerball, Robocop, and The Terminator… all of which, it must be noted, predate the 1990 Japanese manga by Yukito Kishiro this is based upon. So it’s not like all of the blame can go exclusively to director and cowriter Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Machete Kills) or producer and cowriter James Cameron (Avatar, Aliens of the Deep). That hints of more recent dystopias such as Wall-E, Elysium, and Divergent also infest this disaster might be slightly more forgivable; maybe they were copying the graphic novel, right? (I doubt it.) But that still does not excuse filmmakers who have been as uniquely inventive as Rodriguez and Cameron from wallowing like this in a stew of borrowed ideas and imagery. And doing absolutely nothing fresh with them.

Alita Battle Angel Rosa Salazar
“The next one of you ED-209–lookin’ mofos tells me how many seconds I have to comply gets his microprocessors skewered.”

The only thing onscreen here that doesn’t look and feel like stuff we’ve seen before — a lot — is the bizarrely big-eyed face of cyborg Alita (CGI’d Rosa Salazar: Maze Runner: The Death Cure, CHiPs), who has a human brain but not, it seems, any other meat bits. She’s just a mostly human-looking head (except for those eyes!) and a bit of torso when Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz: Downsizing, The Legend of Tarzan) scoops her out of the scrapyard below the floating utopian metropolis of Zalem, “last of the great sky cities,” where all Zalem’s rubbish gets dumped. Alita — as Ido dubs the amnesiac girl after he’s taken her back to his cybernetics lab and given her the spare robot body he happened to have, because of Reasons, just lying around — is also “the last of her kind,” and a Big Bad from up in Zalem will eventually come after her and the lost high-tech she represents. So, like, why did she get thrown out in Zalem’s garbage in the first place? (If Ido, in the poor slum of Iron City on the ground, has the ability and the knowledge to recognize what Alita is, then there’s no question that the people of Zalem would recognized her for what she is, too.) That the Big Bad, played briefly onscreen by Edward Norton (Isle of Dogs, Collateral Beauty), looks so much like James Cameron that at first I thought it was James Cameron gave me the icky creeps. Why is Cameron inserting himself into a story about chasing a big-eyed teenage girl around?

Alita Battle Angel Rosa Salazar
Naked came the strong-female born-sexy-yesterday robot warrior.

Ugh! I was trying to talk about Alita’s eyes and instead I fell into a spiral of trying to unpick the nonsense going on here: the stuff that makes no sense; the stuff that, I fear, makes way too much unpleasant sense. Anyway, it’s plain that Alita’s inhumanly big eyes are meant to reflect the character’s manga roots… except everybody has huge eyes in Japanese comics. Here, only Alita does. Not even the other cyborgs, of which there are many, have eyes like that. One could argue that the big eyes were an aesthetic choice on the part of her centuries-ago makers; and, indeed, we do see in the flashback memories that Alita later experiences that her fellow cyborg warriors also had the same huge eyes. But that doesn’t cut it as a creative decision on the part of the filmmakers. Because — as with Robocop and Blade RunnerAlita wants us to think about what it means to be human, and yet it goes out of its way to drop us right into an uncanny valley that distances us from the humanity that it is, at least obliquely, arguing for on Alita’s behalf.

Alita fails in that regard, too, because the only character who even approaches coming across as an actual person here is Waltz’s Ido, a charming, melancholy figure with a complex backstory and plausible, if sometimes clichéd, motivations. The film is a lot more sympathetic to him than it is to Alita, who is nothing but a naive blank slate — literally: she remembers nothing of her past before Ido reanimated her — left to the mercy of the lies and manipulations of the men around her… including those of the charming Ido. But it’s even worse than that: Alita is the epitome of cinema’s problem of the Strong Female Character, the demand for which the male filmmakers who dominate Hollywood have taken not to mean “psychologically robust, flawed human people who happen to be women” but, literally, physically strong, aggressive fighters, as long as they’re still “hot.” Ass-kicking babes have become something of a fetish onscreen, and Alita is little more than that.

Alita Battle Angel Rosa Salazar
“You’re not my real dad. My real robot dad is Alex Murphy.”

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with a female character who is physically strong and an able warrior; the problem is when that’s all she is. And this is the totality of Alita as a character: she is nothing but a robot warrior, and she doesn’t even have to work at it; she just automatically, instinctively uses whatever training — or, more insidiously, programming — she once had. And naturally, because she’s a robot, not a meatbag woman with a body of flesh and bone, she’s not “offputtingly” muscular or even physically threatening until she leaps into action: she’s still slim and, with the help of those huge eyes, cute. (Alita is an example of another trope that needs to die: Born Sexy Yesterday.) Cameron didn’t use to have a problem creating well-rounded female characters who were also physically capable of keeping up with men; see Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. What happened? (Laeta Kalogridis [Terminator Genisys, Shutter Island] is also credited as a screenwriter, but there’s no evidence of her influence at all. The less said, for example, about the appalling way that Jennifer Connelly’s [Only the Brave, Spider-Man: Homecoming] scientist is treated here, the better.)

Because Alita is so powerful, she can sign up to be one of Iron City’s “hunter-warrior” bounty hunters, and then train to play in the “Motorball” arena, where cyborgs battle for the acclaim of the city and the right to ascend to Zalem. Which means that an ungodly amount of the unconscionably two-hour-22-minute runtime of this movie is given over to robot battles of one sort or another. Often these are incomprehensible. More often the justifications for them are buried under a mountain of world-building infodumps. Characters — meatbag and cyborg — undergo ridiculous changes of heart, particularly in the final few minutes of the film, as if everyone involved suddenly realized they needed to start wrapping things up. And still Alita ends with the threat of a sequel. Better if it just __END__

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Fri, Nov 19, 2021 11:03pm

In some cases I think it’s important to compare source material with the film, so you can properly know who to blame. Stories about amnesiac cyborgs represent what I love most about sci-fi – a glimpse at what it means to be human from another angle, an angle that involves imagination. After all imagination is itself a big part of being human. I know this thread is 3 years old, but after investing too much time reading through it, I didn’t see many posts that grasped how different the characters from the original manga or anime are. The Hollywoodized version created by James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Landa is a whitewashed, born sexy yesterday mess. The original Alita threatens to kill Hugo if he doesn’t pull his head out of his ass. The original Hugo is not romantically pursuing Alita. Hugo has serious problems, he hurts people for his own gain. But as we often see in Japanese entertainment, insight is given into characters’ pasts so we see where their trauma stems from; why they are acting out in a naughty way. I think this has to do with Japan’s Buddhist background vs. America’s Christian background. Holllywood loves an absolute good vs absolute evil story. Japanese movies more often show the “good guy” overcoming internal flaws and the “bad guy” viewed in a compassionate light. In Yukito Kishiro’s story, Hugo is neither a “good guy” nor a “bad guy.” This apparently confused the Cameron team and they decided to re-write his character by asking “what would John Wayne do?” They should be equally ashamed of their treatment of Alita herself. I would love to go on, but I doubt anyone’s gonna read this anyway.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  SneakyLemur
Wed, Dec 01, 2021 10:42am

I read it.