A Retrospective Review of Alita: Battle Angel
Battle Angel Alita is an iconic piece of manga fiction that has long begged for a cinematic outing. The story of a teenage cyborg who discovers who she is after rising from the scrapheap is an outstanding work of art that transcends its Japanese roots to become an accessible and emotive journey of discovery — one action set piece at a time.
But turning such an iconic and action-packed story into a movie would never be easy, even with James Cameron on board as writer and producer and the ever-energetic Robert Rodriguez directing. In this article, I will dig into what made Alita: Battle Angel good but also why it could have been so much better.
Alita: Battle Angel — The Plot
** Warning: minor spoilers ahead **
We meet Alita (Rosa Salazar) at the beginning of the film as she’s rescued from a scrapyard called Iron City by kindly cyborg repairman Ido (Christoph Waltz). Alita is, in essence, a disembodied brain and Ido rebuilds her with mechanical parts. Alita remembers nothing before being found and, just like the viewers, approaches everything in the post-apocalyptic world with wide eyes. As a viewer, Alita is a portal to the film. Her wonder at her surroundings mirror those of the viewer, and you can’t help but feel a kinship towards the lost girl.
One night, Alita and Ido are ambushed by a gang of cyborg serial killers led by the despicable Grewishka (Jackie Earle Hayley). After seeing Ido get injured, Alita begins to instinctively fight using a lost combat technique called “Panzer-Kunst”. Killing two of the cyborgs and damaging Grewishka, Alita starts to believe that fighting will help her remember her past. Ido disagrees and refuses to help Alita become a Hunter-Warrior bounty hunter.
Frustrated, Alita breaks from Ido and registers herself as a Hunter-Warrior and goes looking for Grewishka. A chaotic bar brawl ends with the arrival of the massively upgraded Grewishka, who challenges Alita to a duel. Alita is badly defeated and has to be rescued by Ido and Hugo (a boy she has befriended). Alita realises she is in love with Hugo and… well the film continues to twist and turn with enough story beats to fill several movies. Throughout the film, Alita becomes a bounty hunter, investigates a serial killer (Grewishka), falls in love with Hugo, joins a deadly professional cyborg sporting league (Motorball), and finally uncovers the truth about her existence. And while Grewishka serves as the early “bad guy” it soon becomes apparent that the sinister Vector (played with menace by Mahershala Ali) and his scientist Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), are running the show… or are they.
Egging on the bad guys
It’s in the long list of “baddies” that the film’s flaws begin to appear. Cameron and Rodriguez in their urge to stay faithful to the source material have thrown the kitchen sink at the story. The events of Alita: Battle Angel cover roughly the first four volumes of Battle Angel Alita. The sheer number of story elements and baddies give the film an almost episodic nature with a “villain of the week” vibe.
Early parts of the story are dictated by Alita’s urge for revenge on Grewishka. But when she becomes a Hunter-Warrior, we meet Amok (Casper Can Diem), a cyborg who is responsible for the death of Ido’s daughter. Then comes Zapan (Ed Skrein), an arrogant bounty-hunting cyborg who develops a vendetta against Alita. Then up steps Vector and Chiren, but even their reveal is a feint as the movie’s final beats introduce us to Nova (Ed Norton) who makes a fleeting appearance as the Blofeld of the movie.
The overabundance of story feels like a rollercoaster ride, with moments of build-up followed by big set-pieces before more build-up. Everything feels rushed. The existential crisis core that made the manga so compelling is side-lined to exposition dumps when the film takes enough time to breathe. Alita is an interesting character, but her story arc is too often neglected in favour of action. Her affection for Hugo feels tacked on and isn’t integral to her character. Ido comes across as a powerful father figure early in the film but is pushed aside later in favour of other story elements and (again) action set pieces. Everything is a mess of (beautiful) explosions and fights that make an amazing spectacle but not the powerful sci-fi piece it could have been.
Is the film as amazing as the manga it’s based on?
Well, that depends on your point of view. It’s certainly an amazing-looking film with one gorgeous sequence after another. And it does at least try to stay close to the original story’s roots in essence, even if it does sidestep some of the less Western beats (and why the name change? Western audiences aren’t too picky about how you arrange three words). It is certainly a treat for the senses, if not the brain.
Alita: Battle Angel — Final words
Look, Alita: Battle Angel is not an awful film. When viewed purely as a technical marvel and Hollywood blockbuster, it is an entertaining film. For those familiar with the original manga, there is something to enjoy here, but you can’t help but feel that a little less storytelling ambition and a little more focus on character could have made the film a sci-fi classic. My tip is leave your brain at the door and enjoy the show.