ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
M, 122 minutes
Encountering the cult manga series Battle Angel Alita must have been a thrill for Western comic-book fans in the 1990s, when action heroines were still a novelty and marketing labels such as “cyberpunk” hadn’t wholly lost their patina of cool. By comparison, this big-budget Americanised retelling of the story feels like business as usual for the Hollywood of 2019.
One visual element, however, may earn it a place in the history of kitsch. This is, loosely speaking, a live-action film, but through the magic of digital effects, the cyborg heroine (Rosa Salazar) has been given freakishly huge Bambi eyes, which well up with emotion at regular intervals.
The look is cutely “innocent” yet blatantly artificial, one of many paradoxes associated with Alita, as the character is named by her adoptive father Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who finds her head and torso on a scrapheap in the post-apocalyptic metropolis of Iron City.
Kitted out with a mechanical body from Dr Ido’s workshop, Alita physically resembles a young adolescent girl. But she could equally be described as a newborn child, or as several centuries old. In personality, too, she’s a fusion of opposing tendencies: gentle and unassuming on the surface, but no slouch at lethal violence once her programming kicks in.
This is a project that has been nursed for the best part of two decades by James Cameron, who gave us Titanic and Avatar among other blockbuster hits. Credited here as producer and co-writer, Cameron originally planned to direct as well.
But with a backlog of Avatar sequels to complete, he has handed the assignment on to Robert Rodriguez, a more openly playful fantasist who has spent his career alternating between tongue-in-cheek gore (Sin City) and high-spirited family entertainment (Spy Kids).
Alita: Battle Angel is somewhere between the two modes: action-oriented but hardly gruesome, it’s geared at older kids whose parents don’t object to a small number of swears.
On Cameron’s watch, Rodriguez’s taste for dopey, juvenile humour has been curtailed: what remains intact is his junkyard aesthetic, which entails patching together salvaged pop materials in a casual, almost indifferent way.
Rodriguez seems to have drawn inspiration from his native Mexico for the design of Iron City, a curiously warm, bustling dystopia where layers of visible history – decaying colonial architecture, abandoned high-rises – convey a sense that future and past are interchangeable. Menacing machines patrol the streets, but combat involves swords rather than guns.
Alita is a similar ad hoc assemblage, who can be taken apart and put back together differently without permanent harm. Too bad that over the years of developing this project no one seems to have thought very hard about the implications of this, and how they might resonate with a contemporary public.
For instance, there’s the question of how far Alita should be defined as a woman. In theory, her ability to switch bodies while retaining her “core” might well render traditional notions of gender obsolete.
But the filmmakers appear unwilling to explore this directly within a young adult adventure framework, and even when Alita acquires a boyfriend (Keean Johnson), we’re given only a few tantalising hints about the physical realities of human-cyborg love.
Instead, what passes for a plot is mechanical in the most limiting sense of the word: an escalating series of showdowns in the manner of a video game, with the promise of more of the same in further instalments.
Despite her cartoonishly expressive features, Alita remains a construct rather than a believable person. Salazar’s line readings are on the flat side, but it’s hard to blame her considering what she had to work with.
Just as disappointingly, the film squanders its over-qualified supporting cast, including Jennifer Connelly as Dr Ido’s glowering ex-wife and Mahershala Ali as a gangster who reaps profits from the Iron City sport of Motorball (a kind of earthbound rollerblading alternative to Quidditch).
At least there’s Waltz, bringing a glint of perverse mischief to a character written as little more than an exposition machine. It’s not the first time he’s used his eccentric diction and disturbing equability to brighten up a nothing part, but his bag of tricks still works: his cheery smile after outlining his tragic back story is a sight to see.
Jake Wilson was born in London and grew up in Melbourne. He got his start reviewing movies for various websites and has been writing for the Age since 2006.
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