Guest voice for today's movie review is Jim D. Gillentine. Spoilers ahead!
Making live action updates to anime or popular comics have been a thing for the last few years. Hollywood has been looking overseas for stories to bring to life on the big screen with... well... not very good results. The thing about these properties, especially the ones from Japan, is that they resonate and mean something for that culture alone.
So when they try to bring those stories over here to the USA, they drop certain elements or plot points to make it more assessable for the American audiences. This ruins the product for the fans that go see these attempts by Hollywood to tap into those stories. The worst examples are the awful Dragonball Evolution (2009) and the recent Ghost in the Shell (2017). These problems are largely avoided in the new movie Alita: Battle Angel, but it isn’t a perfect execution of cinema.
In the year 2563, three hundred years after a war called the The Fall, all life centers around one giant floating city called Zalem where the rich and privileged live. Beneath this haven-like metropolis is Iron City, a dirty, run down slum that surrounds a large pile of junk and scraps that drop down from Zalem above. Here, the kind Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cybernetic surgeon, searches the scrap yard for useful parts to treat his patients that need repairs which he usually does for free out of the kindness of his heart.
When the movie opens he is on one of these searches, as he stumbles across the head and torso of a female android that is still alive although in a state of suspended animation. Ido takes the android home and attaches the torso to a cybernetic body that he had intended to use for his daughter that was murdered before he could complete the surgery. After waking up and having no memory of her past life, Ido names the young woman Alita (Rosa Salazar) after his deceased daughter. Alita tries to remember her past life and becomes friends with young Hugo (Keean Johnson), for whom she begins to get feelings for almost immediately.
Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) tries to convince Ido to come work with her under Vector (Mahershala Ali) to build and repair combatants for the sport motorball, which is Iron City’s only sporting event. Ido refuses, and one night Alita follows Ido at night and finds out that he is not only a doctor, but also a bounty hunter (hunter warrior) that patrols Iron City to capture or kill criminals wondering the streets. Alita steps into a trap set up to kill Ido, fights back and finds out that she instinctively remembers a fighting style of martial arts called Panzer Kunst. A fighting style that only the most deadly of battle androids were trained to use. During the battle, Alita remembers a little bit of her past and decides that she wants to become a hunter warrior to help remember who she used to be.
Alita grows and changes with each new adventure in the movie and we grow with her. I have seen the movie three times so far, and plan on seeing it again. The action in this move is amazing and the special effects are a wonder to behold. The story, although not the best-written, still makes me smile and that leads me to talking about the strengths and weaknesses of this film.
The Good and the Bad About Alita
Alita suffers from what a lot of movies are trying to do in Hollywood today: the hopes of starting a movie franchise. Characters like Nova are referenced to, mentioned and even seen, but it goes nowhere. This can frustrate moviegoers who want everything wrapped up at the movie’s end and everyone living happily ever after. Thanks to Marvel’s success with their superhero movies, this is becoming a rarer thing with any sicfi or horror movie and I think it is leading to fatigue for moviegoers.
For me the strengths of this movie far outweigh the weaknesses, and that strength is the character of Alita herself. Rosa Salazar’s performance as Alita shines so brightly in this movie. The design of the character can be off-putting and creepy with the look of the large eyes. But soon you get used to it and find that those large eyes in fact help the character convey her feelings and make you connect with her. When she cries, you cry with her. When she tries chocolate for the first time, you rejoice in the pleasure she is having at its taste.
Spoiler ahead to my favorite scene in the movie. Alita is battling a giant cyborg and when she is damaged, her body ripped to pieces and only having one good arm left to try to move. She seems defeated, broken. The cyborg gloats over Alita and jokes about wearing her as a living pedant to hear her beg to be killed everyday. He says it would be him showing her mercy. Alita, using her one good arm, is able to spring up and ram her arm into the cyborg’s eye. She looks at him and screams: “FUCK YOUR MERCY!” And my heart cheers for her. That is one of the underlining representations in this movie: the hidden strength that women have within themselves and that they don’t need a hero to save them. They have the power to do it alone.
The other thing that shines in this film is the performance of Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido. He portrays the father figure for Alita and does a wonderful job as the parent who doesn’t want anything bad to happen to the child they love. But he also portrays how that love can strangle and push away the one you care for when you don’t want that child to grow up and be their own person.
The love story in the film is tragic and plays into one of Alita’s flaws as a person in the film. She is far too trusting and loves far too easily, but that is a character still trying to grow and discover who she really is. Keean Johnson as Hugo does a good job playing the street kid that only wants to get ahead in life, but ends up hurting the one he loves by doing it. Jennifer Connelly as Chiren does okay in the film, but I feel Connelly and Mahershala Ali as Vector are both underused. I wish they could have been given more screen time to flesh out their characters and motives in the movie. But when they are onscreen, they do a fine job with what they are given to do.
The story is based off Yukito Kishiro's manga series Gunnm in Japan that has been running since the early 90s, and is just now entering it final phase where the story will be wrapped up. As a fan of anima and manga, I can say I am very happy about the results of this movie. It is doing well overseas, and I have hopes that the story continues. It has it flaws, and it is far from a perfect film. I think that if you give Alita a chance to look at you with her large eyes, you will enjoy seeing her go from young girl to confident warrior.
Jim D. Gillentine is an author and arguably the world's biggest Godzilla fan. Find out more about his work at www.jimmygillentine.com.