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Non-Review Review: Alita – Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is the result of a creative union between James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.

This partnership makes a certain amount of sense. Both Cameron and Rodriguez are genre film-makers, and one suspects that the two men would have been fast friends had they emerged at around the same time; Cameron came of age making films like Piranha 2 or Terminator, and those are certainly of a piece with Rodriguez’s filmography from Desperado through to Planet Terror and even Sin City. Cameron has arguably elevated his work into the mainstream, in that it is impossible to imagine Rodriguez producing a mass-appeal cultural smash like Cameron did with Terminator 2: Judgment Day Titanic or Avatar.

Slice o’ life.

However, allowing for that core similarity, Cameron and Rodriguez are still fundamentally different film-makers. Their interests might align when it comes to genre work, but they construct their movies in a very different manner, with a different emphasis on different aspects of their technique. Cameron is much more interested in bringing polish to his genre work, in finding a way to transform otherwise niche high-concept tales into crowd-pleasing blockbusters with mass appeal. In contrast, Rodriguez revels in the grottier aspects of his genre work, believing that the lack of sheen is part of the appeal.

Alita: Battle Angel finds these two aesthetics at odds with one another. The story at the heart of Alita is pure Cameron, dedicated to world-building and social commentary while relying on exposition and centring on big set pieces. However, the delivery of Alita is very much in the style of Rodriguez, stressing cool beats and individual sequences rather than the singular cohesive whole. The result is jarring and deeply fascinating, but it doesn’t quite come together. Alita is an intriguing piece of cinema, but a less than satisfying would-be blockbuster. Like its central character, it seems constructed of parts that don’t quite fit.

Red is dead.

This tension between the aesthetics of Cameron and Rodriguez is evident even in the title character herself. Conceptually, the eponymous Alita feels very much like a James Cameron creation. Like many of Cameron’s characters, she is posthuman. Like Bishop in Aliens or the T-1000 in Terminator 2 or even the body-jacked Na’vi in Avatar, Alita is something that is more human than human – an artificial person who somehow represents a purer ideal than her flesh-and-blood counterparts.

More than that, Alita is characterised as a three-hundred-year-old warrior woman, the survivor of an ancient war who finds herself facing apocalyptic odds when she is reawakened. There are obvious echoes of both Cameron’s characterisation of Ripley in Aliens and of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, both older women who find themselves resurfacing years after a traumatic experience to battle a new manifestation of an older evil that took a heavy toll upon them. The opening sequences of Alita and Aliens even mirror one another, their slumbering female protagonists found amid scrap metal during a salvage mission.

Body work.

However, there is also a sense in which Alita is very much a Rodriguez protagonist. Alita might be three-hundred years old, but she is first brought to life in the body of a thirteen-year-old girl. Alita is almost immediately established as a hyper-competent (and hyper-violent) teenage badass. She is innocent and (literally) wide-eyed, but also incredibly violent and brutal. Alita luxuriates in the violence that its protagonist can cause, but also in the juxtaposition of her seeming naivety against the resulting carnage.

In this way, Alita positions its protagonist as the latest in a long line of lethal young girls, a cinematic tradition codified by Léon: The Professional and simmering through other films like Logan and Kick-Ass. There is something strange about pop culture’s lurid fascination with these often pre- (or on-the-cusp-of-) pubescent killing machines, the contrast between the innocence that popular culture tends to fetishise in young girls and the superficially “adult” content of their actions. Alita is very much an example of this broader cultural trend.

Baby doll.

Alita is at once a centuries-old military commander who can rend an opponent limb-from-limb using an obscure martial art and also a young girl increasingly curious about the world and nursing a crush on the dashingly handsome male teenage supporting lead. This is an archetype that reflects Robert Rodriguez’s sensibilities; two of his recurring performers are, after all, “the baby-sitter twins” who are frequently decked out with machine guns and blades. More to the point, the character of Nancy Kerrigan in Sin City is defined as a childhood victim of abuse, a surrogate daughter for two male characters and a lethal force.

Alita leans rather heavily and overtly into the sexualisation of Alita; not as much as Léon, but more than Logan and Kick-Ass. Alita is first brought to life in the body of a young girl, one that the scientist Ido had been designing for his deceased daughter. However, at a certain point in the film, she upgrades to a more aggressive and “mature” body, the camera lingering over her body as it becomes curvier and more mature. “Looks like she’s older than we thought,” Ido’s nurse muses. Visiting her pseudo-boyfriend later than evening, Alita boasts of being “more tactily sensitive.”

Of course, this tension with the lead character carries over from the source material. However, the movie’s strange push-and-pull between these two extremes reflects the clash between the sensibilities of Cameron and Rodriguez. This tension bubbles throughout the movie, in ways both large and small. From the outset, it is obvious in the way that the movie struggles with exposition. A movie like Alita requires a lot of world-building, needing to bring its audience up to speed on the mechanics of its society very quickly and efficiently.

Cameron is, and always has been, very good at exposition. Of course, his characters tend to monologue and his information often arrives in infodumps with little poetry or ambiguity. However, Cameron has a remarkable ability to sell broad mass-market audiences on concepts that should be niche; the temporal paradoxes in Terminator 2 and the internal logic of Avatar were no barrier to those films becoming massive box office smashes. Cameron is very efficient at conveying that information to audiences in a clean and easy-to-process manner; Sarah Connor’s dream in Terminator 2 is a masterclass in exposition.

Cyborg to death.

Watching Alita demonstrates how skilled Cameron is at providing such information in a clean and efficient manner by way of contrast. The opening hour of Alita splutters and stops repeatedly to bring its audience up to speed on the culture and society of Iron City. The dialogue is very much in keeping with Cameron’s style, which makes sense given his screenplay credit. However, Rodriguez never finds a way to make these moments visually interesting. Instead, the exposition scenes are largely flat. Alita spends a solid thirty minutes asking variants on the question “what is that?” or “what is this?” or “what are those?”

Even the structure and rhythms of the film seem at odds with the actual scene-to-scene storytelling. On paper, Alita is very much of a piece with Cameron’s long-standing critiques of capitalist society as they bubble through works like Aliens, Terminator 2 or Avatar. Indeed, Alita is a science-fiction story of class warfare literalised in the manner of District 9 and Elysium. The upper class paradise of Zalem literally looms over Iron City, inaccessible even as it feeds on the working class below. The population of Iron City are reduced to tools, cybernetic augmentation reducing them to functions rather than individuals.

Machine learning.

However, Rodriguez is markedly less interested in this sort of heavy-handed allegory than Cameron. Rodriguez has engaged in commentary like this before, most obviously in the prescient condemnation of extreme anti-Mexican anxiety in Machete, but tends towards biting parody and scathing irony rather than the more earnest criticism that Cameron prefers. In terms of storytelling, Rodriguez is much more interested in cool action beats than in developing strong central ideas.

This leads to a number of strange plotting decisions, with Alita constantly bending and contorting in order to accommodate both the story that Cameron wants to tell and the film that Rodriguez wants to film. There is a lot of redundancy baked into the structure of Alita to allow each of those creative voices the chance to have their cake and eat it. The two-hour-and-two minute film is constantly doubling back over itself and repeating itself in order to allow for both voices to be heard.

Live by the sword…

This is often jarring, such as an extended bar fight that exists right before a video game “boss battle”, which serves no plot function apart from allowing Rodriguez to shoot a barroom brawl. (The entire sequence hinges on the idea of Alita believing that a bunch of self-interested mercenaries would want to protect her family from an existential threat out of the goodness of their hearts, which is a tough sell no matter how innocent Alita is supposed to be.) Similarly, Alita herself enlists in the same deadly rollerball-esque sports league twice over the course of the film, which is just inefficient storytelling.

The rate at which the film repeats itself and reverses (and then un-reverses) itself makes it difficult for the audience to maintain any emotional attachment or investment in its world. The climax of the film finds Alita attempting to rescue a loved one from a gigantic menace, and barely succeeding at incredible cost. However, there is barely enough time to process that pyrrhic victory before the exact same character is placed in even more danger, seeming to render Alita’s rescue of them completely redundant and pointless. It is frustrating.

(Even the movie’s internal logic feels warped and contorted by the film’s constant doubling back and repeating itself, trying to create more room for the interests of its two strongest creative voices. The climax of the film hinges on the villainous bounty hunter Zapan trying to drive a wedge between Alita and her love interest. On paper, this should be quite simple; Alita is a cyborg and Hugo has been involved in the brutal murder of cyborgs. However, the plot mechanics of Alita end up so muddled that Zapan tries to frame Hugo for something that he did not do, thus evaporating any real tension.)

This sense of confusion carries over to the action sequences. As an action director, Cameron is a fan of big ideas. Cameron adheres to traditional ideas of set-up and pay-off, of placing guns on the mantelpiece and then having them go off at the right moment; think of the introduction of the cargo loader early in Aliens, or the way in which he establishes rules within the world of Avatar, or how his characters discuss the mechanics of the flooding protection mechanism in Titanic. In contrast, Rodriguex’s action scenes are more free-wheeling and more dynamic; they are playful, improvisational, exhilarating.

Boy, is her face red.

These twin impulses pull against one another within Alita. There are a number of action sequences that seem tailored to Cameron’s interest in logic and momentum. At one point, a sporting event becomes a battleground, with the camera focusing on the ball as it remains in play during this impromptu death match. Cameron would likely retain focus on the ball in this set piece, but Rodriguez casually brushes it aside as soon as his interest wanes. It very quickly goes from being a playful and cheeky high concept showdown to a generic selection of pixels smashing off one another.

This action beat is intercut with a chase sequence in which the cybernetic bounty hunter Zapan chases Hugo through the slums of Iron City. Much has been made of the fact that Hugo is an unaugmented human. He has no cybernetic implants. He is just flesh and bone in a city populated by transhuman creations. In theory, the action scene should emphasise the challenges for a human like Hugo in evading a machine literally built to track and kill him. However, Rodriguez shoots the sequence like any other action sequence. Hugo seems just as superhuman as any cyborg. The premise of the chase is undercut.

Alita is a muddle and mess. Nevertheless, there are parts of the film that work. Most obviously, there is always enough going on that at least some part of it is interesting. While the clash of styles is jarring and distracting, it is also weird enough to elevate Alita above many other heavily-animated live action cyberpunk films. Alita feels esoteric and strange, largely for the same reasons that it is deeply frustrating. It probably isn’t necessary to have Eiza González play some weird spider-sword hybrid, but it sticks in the memory.

Even beyond that, the production design is quite impressive. There’s a weirdness to the imagery that is strangely appealing, such as the recurring sight of Christoph Waltz dressing up like an eighteenth century witchfinder who carries a gigantic computer-enhanced scythe that should (theoretically) weigh almost as much as he does. The parts of Alita often seem more than their sum, such as Zapan’s beautiful bedazzled backside, complete with metal skull centrepiece. Alita herself is very much part of this, the film’s production design pushing her into the uncanny valley in a way that feels very deliberate and very effective.

Suits you, sir.

Beyond that, there is something to be said for watching talented actors try to navigate around the hurdles that the script puts in front of them. This is particularly true of Mahershala Ali, who operates in a strange sort of Schrodinger’s villain role that hinges in no small part on an impersonation of an actor who doesn’t reveal themselves until the final shot of the film. Ali’s performance is much better than the surrounding film, but it becomes particularly engaging in hindsight, when the audience realises how good that impression actually was.

Alita doesn’t work, but the ways in which it doesn’t work are more interesting than a lot of other films in its weight class. It’s a strange mish-mash of themes and ideas, thrown together by two talents with very different interests in the story. The result is chaotic, uneven and unsatisfying. It is also strangely compelling.

2 Responses

  1. > The two-hour-and-twenty-two minute film

    Minor correction: it’s 122 minutes long.

    I was surprised when I came out to find out it had been that short; not because I felt it had dragged, but because it had seemed to cram plenty of events into that running time.

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