Alita: Battle Angel , Rodriguez/Cameron make a messy manga movie out of spare parts

By Karen Gordon

Rating: C-plus

Alita: Battle Angel is about a sweet but lethally trained hybrid girl. Fittingly, it feels like a hybrid story, pulled together from bits and pieces of Young Adult and genre action films, and is less than the sum of its parts.

Based on a manga cyberpunk series by Yukito Kishiro, called "Gunnm" (and co-written by director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron) the movie begins in the 26th century, 300 years after a devastating war. 

Alita (Rosa Salazar), is literally taken from the garbage heap of history. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), is picking through a giant trash heap on the outskirts of Iron City, when he spots the remains of a cyborg girl, a model that had a human brain. She is in good enough shape that he believes he can rebuild and reboot her (Ido is a doctor who specializes in attaching robot limbs to humans who need or want them).  

Keean Johnson and a cyborg-iced Rosa Salazar fight their way through Iron City in Alita: Battle Angel.

Keean Johnson and a cyborg-iced Rosa Salazar fight their way through Iron City in Alita: Battle Angel.

This discarded body is centuries old. But as we quickly learn, they don’t make them like that anymore.  He takes her home, creates a suitable body for her, and, does his magic.

The revived cyborg has no memory of her past life, her name or identity. She seems like an incredibly sweet, curious ordinary young girl. Ido names her Alita, after his late young daughter, and in a gentle, fatherly way assures her that her memories will return by and by. 

And they do. An encounter with a dismissive boy playing a rough street sport called Motorball triggers an instinctive aggressive and competitive streak. She takes to it like a duck to water, if the duck was a pre-Federation Klingon.  And then a street fight with some huge, lethal, dangerous hybrid bad guys, (Dr. Ido moonlights as a 26th century bounty hunter) ignites more flashbacks to her old life as a soldier. She is, we learn, an expert in a martial art called Panzer Kunst. She’s fast, and, when provoked, fights with lethal force. 

Thus, does Alita become a target in a city of cyborg bad guys, run by the villainous Vector (Mahershala Ali), on behalf of an even worse character named Nova (played by… well, that’s a surprise). 

Add to this a teenage love interest named Hugo (Keean Johnson), whose attention messes with her 300-year-old head.

There’s a lot going on in Alita: Battle Angel - love, battles, games, father-and-daughter stuff, evil estranged scientist mother-in-six-inch-heels stuff. A LOT. The story hangs together, but, there’s a “been there done that” quality to the whole thing. The plot seems to be a hybrid of precursors, from Divergent to Transformers to The Bourne Identity and more. 

The movie works hard to please. Maybe too hard.

Alita: Battle Angel began as a project that James Cameron (Aliens, Terminator, Titanic, Avatar) intended to direct himself. But two Avatar sequels (now in production), intervened. Enter: Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Sin CIty).  The two share a writing credit with Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island).

On paper the two filmmakers seem like an odd match. Cameron’s fascination with blending animation and live action has seen him create movies that are wonderful to look at, but, can be fairly conventional. Conversely, Rodriguez seems drawn to edge and grit. 

The dual influence makes for some visually wonderful sequences. Great fight scenes abound. But after a while, you zone out. There are way too many superficial or uninteresting scenes that slow down an already long movie.  And the film is frustratingly shallow emotionally, which may be one of Cameron’s weaknesses. 

Alita is a steadfast character. As confused as she is about her own identity, she doesn’t mope or sulk. She’s sunny, sweet, and open to life. But while the film pretends to treat Alita like an empowered young woman, she’s still seen through the “male gaze.”  At one point in the film, Alita’s body literally morphs from an early teen, to a more mature young woman with an idealized body.  

Sure, it’s a visual metaphor for adolescence, for a rite of passage, for taking on your power, or a bunch of other things. But honestly?  It’s also bit creepy. 

At the end of the movie, Alita knows what she can do, but doesn’t really know much more about who she was.  However, there is narrative room for a sequel to flesh it out (box office willing). 

Alita: Battle Angel. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Written by Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. Starring Rosa Salazar, Chrisoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali. Opens wide, Thursday, February 14.