Review – Alita: Battle Angel

Slowly but surely we are seeing those creators who grew up on anime and manga break into the industry and bring some of their favourite pieces to a more receptive audience. Robert Rodriguez has always worn his geeky side with pride, and his directing credits swing wildly between the more mature content and the kid’s action, you’d never believe that Dusk ‘Til Dawn was made by the same guy as Spy Kids. He also brought the Sin City comics to the big screen and made them household names, so to see him turn his action adventure skills to a 1990 manga (and a ’93 OVA) is something to be excited about.

Alita has received a lukewarm reception for wearing one particular anime influence firmly on its face, the alarmingly large eyes that have made so many casual viewers uncomfortable. And they’re not the only anime component that can be found shamelessly flaunted throughout the film, announcing loud and proud where it came from, and the love of the people who turned the wheels to make it happen.

There will be spoilers. I am not sorry.

Coming of Age Story

There are some deeply powerful messages in the film, and the one that may be strangest… no, let me rephrase that, the one most atypical of the film industry, is how loss can be devastating but empowering. An amnesiac cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) rebuilt and reborn into a world she does not understand but immediately falls in love with, rapidly ages as the horrors hidden below the thin veneer come to light, the horrors of war, the lengths people will go to for survival, or even to reach out for a comfortable life.

Ido (Christoph Waltz) very literally thrust her into the body of his daughter, and treats her like a daughter at all times, barely trying to hide it, and while she does eventually come to see him clearly as a father, it’s only through a cycle of rebellion, being given trust and returning the trust in kind. Ido comes to acknowledge Alita as her own person, enabling her choices while never withholding paternal advice.

The love interest Hugo coaxes her into the world and shows her the joys of his life while hiding the dark ways he feeds his habit, being a key part in a cyborg chop-shop. His single minded pursuit of his life’s goal could so easily have been shoved to one side “because he loves her” but instead his relentlessness ultimately destroys him. Alita’s devotion to him barely wavers, even when she discovers his criminal history, and it could be so easy for her to harbour some anger, but it is simply not in her character.

Born of Anime

To say that this film includes some scenes and moments that are near-perfect lifts from the OVA is as much a recommendation as saying the same thing about Ghost In The Shell, so let’s not lean on that too much.

But to be entirely fair, consideration where consideration is due. Ido’s entire wardrobe, especially his hunting gear, the rocket sledge and the Van Hellsing hat and coat combo, is a perfect visual translation. There are a lot of other details to look for as well, like Vector’s glasses, some of the Motorball competitors, the AI interfaces in the Hunter-Warrior centre, and even the choices not to change things like the “Hunter-Warrior” to something more familiar like bounty hunter.

There’s a moment where big-bad Grewishka (played by Jackie Earle Haley, would never have guessed it) goads Alita into a fight underground, in an arena where he feels most comfortable, and he taunts her from a distance. The speech he gives could very well have been lifted straight from the manga… actually to be entirely honest, it really could have been, I wouldn’t know, but it certainly sounds like classic anime-villain-preamble. It’s a moment that brings to mind Pacific Rim in the way even the dialogue sings out the heritage.

On a related note, someone had a lot of fun bringing the Motorball players to the screen, whether designing or interpreting original designs, handbrakes were definitely off in that studio. And while we’re on the subject…

As A Film

So the character of Alita is interesting, and the way she interacts with the people around her is great, the homage is – so far as I can tell – well done…

For an action film, I think this has potential to be a future classic. The trailers pitched a string of set pieces, big flashy moments to put together a great trailer, street fights, bar fights, Motorball, the showdown against Grewishka with his flailing blade fingers. The strength of the action is that it serves and advances the story, nothing can be functionally lost and keep the narrative intact, as any good action scene should be. The fight scenes are well choreographed, and telegraph the nature of the characters, but considering how busy the screen is at all times they also admirably photographed, at all times the combat flows gracefully, and communicates a sense of space, velocity and impact.

And it is entirely fair to say that the character and world building moments bridge the gaps between action well, even the exposition barely feels expository… if that makes any sense. Information unravels naturally, and the inclusion of a Martian element is well telegraphed, the mysterious “Fall”, the war of humanity that is so formative of this world and this story, is revealed to be the reason for Alita’s very existence. And I like how the big-eyes element is incorporated into her Martian origins.

By the way, if you’re wondering who the mysterious “mentor” figure is from Alita’s flashbacks, Michelle Rodriguez! I was deeply satisfied to discover that.

I have an odd grievance, I feel like the film could have ended a half hour or so sooner, there were several moments that felt climactic enough to have ended the film on a high… but oh no, here’s this loose end to tie up. Oh and I guess I forgot that plot thread… oh are we dealing with this now? Are we not leaving anything for a sequel? To the point where as the film built up to a sequel set-up, I was worried there was another half hour left to go.

Perhaps I’m a little too conscious of a three-act structure, and I adhere to it because it’s the classic set up. Robot bits fall out of the sky, get rebuilt, act one is discovering the world and ends on the street fight where we discover that Alita is some kind of killing machine. Act two, finding the new body, big-bad gets rebuilt and comes after Alita cutting her apart forcing the change to the new body. Act three is the big climax with the attempt at killing Alita on the Motorball pitch, ending one of the unpleasant folk, and saving the boyfriend! Right?

No, because he’s going to run off up to the floating city, well fine, that’s a cool scene to end on, bit of a sad one, but sure… but then we’re going to take down the Hunter-Warrior organisation, confront big-boss Vector, have a face-off with the puppetmaster Nova* and finally take down the big-bad Grewishka! Ok, cool, I guess, felt like it took a while but sure, and then we’re going to close on an epilogue montage?

I don’t wear a watch, if I did, I would have been looking at it a lot in the latter third. There was no extraneous content, all of it was story, but there seemed to be several false-endings, and I felt like I was waiting for Battle Angel to end, and I didn’t want to feel that way about an otherwise very enjoyable film.

*Great villain, Nova, not a lot of development, but enough to make him particularly loathsome. They use a trick that I’ve done before in D&D villains, having them speak through other characters. Anyway, reason for the footnote, turns out it’s Edward Norton!