Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

Title: Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein
Released: Feb 2019


Fishing through a scrapheap, a nondescript cyborg head, enclosing a human brain, is found by a cybernetics doctor named Ido. With memories of his own deceased daughter still weighing on his mind, he reconstructs the cyborg girl and names her Alita after his kin. Ido adopts a nurturing role after discovering Alita has no memories of who she is or where she comes from, but finds the girl is more than meets the eye. Thrown into the alien dystopia of Iron City, Alita strives to rediscover her identity and find contentment among the spiraling harshness and villainy beset around her.

Adapted from Yukito Kishiro’s long-running manga, but borrowing chiefly from the first four volumes, Robert Rodriguez’s rendition has been a long time coming. The author was approached regarding a film version of his series as early as 1994, with the rights eventually landing with James Cameron and Twentieth Century Fox in 1998. A feature-length adaptation has been all but sat on since then, with an inquisitive Robert Rodriguez ultimately procuring the project from Cameron, who finally deemed the visually complex film possible after technological strides were made through his work on Avatar.

For me, this film has been a near decade long wait. For others, it has been twice that amount. In many ways, it both has and has not met the expectations that have been orbiting the project for so long, it being an adaptation of a much loved manga, from two oft-referred visionary filmmakers.

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Alita: Battle Angel is a film of contrasts, both brilliant and substandard. From a visual standpoint, the film is particularly resplendent. The action is frantic and entertaining, amid a world that is — for the most part — wonderfully realised. The effects are all-around absorbing, with Alita herself an exceptional character in both personality and craft. However, the film is let down by crude writing and a disappointing lack of development for many of its secondary characters, notably the antagonists.

It suffers somewhat from the Ghost in the Shell syndrome with an overwrought union of sources. It wants to adapt the manga, and it wants to adapt the anime, and it wants to be its own thing. It’s kneaded together in a way that reveals its own artifice, with hammy dialogue and a lot of not-so-subtle exposition. The plot, while at times intriguing and generally admissible, is weighed down by convolutions and feels suffocated by details, whereas much of the cast besides Alita remain unfortunately shallow.

Even Hugo, the romantic interest, is little more than a husk. He’ll happily tell you that he has a dream, but you’ll be none the wiser as to why. If you want to find out more about him, or the father figure Ido, or the wicked Vector, then you need to read the official prequel novel. That the film has these gaps that need to be filled by going elsewhere is a major inadequacy.

And yet, in-between all of this, it is a fun film, in large part because of the charismatic and charming Alita, who is adapted well from the manga. She looks terrifically authentic, with the use of close-ups and focal shots on her in particular accentuating the finer details and distinct characteristics that make her seem so real. Rosa Salazar is very much the heart and soul of the movie, and worth the price of admission alone.

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There is a scene where Hugo describes her as the most ‘human’ person he knows. This is a bit of a meta-statement, as Rosa and the crew have clearly gone to great lengths to exhibit just how authentic Alita is. This could have proven uncanny and disastrous if the effects weren’t up to standard, but the character is so credible that the sentiment is well expressed. This is not solely the work of WETA, but also Rosa, whose performance is captured in all its profundity. Her journey from wide-eyed girl to hardened Hunter Warrior is easily the best characterisation in the film.

Sadly, every other character struggles to attain any notability. Ido and Hugo are given the second most screen time, but we’re given little reason to care about Hugo, and while attention has been given to Ido, the character’s depth is of little consequence. His relationship with Alita, while not entirely shallow, fails to avoid some degree of banality. Similarly, Jennifer Connelly’s character Chiren has such a negligible presence that her maternal dissonance has little time to form an effectual arc. Though this is a restriction of the runtime as much as it is a deficiency in the writing.

Likewise, villain Grewishka dithers here and there, and is ultimately a puppet that never acquires the depth and spectacle of his manga counterpart. In many ways, he is vastly upstaged by Ed Skrein’s Zapan, who is compelling but skin-deep. Mahershala Ali does what he can with the script, but the actor is underutilised, and his character mishandled. This leads to an ending that fizzles away before it gets going, ultimately making for a conclusion that is a far cry from fulfilling.

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However, what the film lacks in character and development, it has tenfold in action and zest. The Motorball set piece, while sadly shorter than I had hoped, is stunning. All of the action is well choreographed, with key weaponry, such as the Damascus Blade and Rocket Hammer, included much to the delight of manga fans. There are also a number of not-so-obvious details that work to set up potential future plot points that readers of the source material will enjoy. Sadly, however, one of the principal characters from the manga is horrifically shoehorned in and re-written to the point of obscurity.

The setting of Iron City is quite extraordinary, fittingly claustrophobic and ruinous as in Kishiro’s vision, but I wanted to see more of it. There’s a wondrous establishing scene, where the viewers glimpse the city at large for the first time with Alita, but it never seemed as lively or absorbing beyond this introduction. There’s also a sequence in some underground caverns which, in the manga, are glorious and imposing, but in the film this part felt a little too much like a set. Comparably, the film score by Junkie XL is at times a dash undistinguished, but at others marvellous and prominent.

If you can overlook the contrivances, there’s much enjoyment to be had with Alita: Battle Angel. It is let down by a number of shortcomings, but if you do take anything away from the film, it’s very likely to be Alita, and in that respect it has earned my adoration. Rosa Salazar is the ideal Alita, with her character and her journey given due care and attention. I waited for this adaptation for almost a decade, and while it’s not all I had hoped, the parts that it does get right do flourish in spite of the flaws.

For more film musings, you can find me on Letterboxd.

Why Desty Nova Won’t be in Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron’s film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita is just a few months away. A full length trailer was released last week, which gave audiences a taste of what to expect and featured some very welcome reveals, such as the inclusion of Motorball. However, there still isn’t a single trace of the series’ main antagonist, Desty Nova. Despite the director name-dropping him in an interview, I believe the character won’t be a notable or recognisable part of the film.

My reasoning is tied to Makaku, the very first antagonist in the manga, who is the first character to mention and effectively introduce the renegade scientist Desty Nova. In chapter seven, he reveals to Alita that Nova transformed him from a decaying child who roamed the sewers, to a maggot-shaped cyborg symbiote. With this ‘maggot body’ Makaku is able to take over other cyborg’s and pose their bodies as his own.

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Ultimately, this serves as a tantilising introduction for Desty Nova. Throughout the following volumes, Alita is drip-fed information on the character, before finally meeting him half-way through the series in volume five. In the manga, Desty Nova is the supreme antagonist. Almost every other villain Alita finds herself against has, in one way or another, been warped, modified, or influenced by him, but given Desty Nova’s late appearance, a prominent role in the film adaptation was always unlikely, as it adapts material from before his main inclusion. However, as a fan favourite character, who is nonetheless crucial to the story, surely a tease or a reference was a possibility.

The problem is that Makaku (and by extension Desty Nova’s introduction) has been removed from the film. The cyborg that bears resemblance to him in the trailers is in actuality Grewcica, an amalgamated character from the 1993 anime OVA. This character is much less complex than Makaku and has no ties to Desty Nova. This is also but one of the inclusions which are sourced from the OVA, rather than the original manga material. James Cameron revealed in the trailer release Q&A that the anime was his introduction to Battle Angel Alita, after a recommendation from Guillermo del Toro. Desty Nova is not included and is never mentioned in the anime. This eliminates what would have been a seamless establishment of the character and his reputation.

But didn’t Robert Rodriguez say that Mahershala Ali was playing Desty Nova in a duel role alongside Vector? That is correct, and his precise statement is as follows:

He plays Vector, who’s famous from the manga [as a black-market dealer who Hugo works for] and then there’s a villainous character called Nova who can, like, ride through other people. He can take over their bodies. So he has to play someone else; that was really fun. We got the actor to come in and do the main role he’s playing, but then you kind of have to create a whole other character with him. I showed his footage to Jim and he was like, ‘It’s a totally different person!’ Posture, voice, the look in their eye: it’s a lot of fun for an actor to do that. One, to play the first character but then have to come up with a second character on top.

I find issue with this description of Desty Nova as a character who can “ride through people” and “take over their bodies.” This seems much more fitting of Makaku’s maggot form over anything Desty Nova does. While Grewcica does not possess Makaku’s body swapping abilities, Robert Rodriguez did say that screenwriter James Cameron had come up with “inventions” inspired by the manga. It’s possible the ‘body swapping’ of Makaku has been incorporated into this Nova character which is performed by Ali, and is thus introduced through alternate avenues entirely separate from the manga.

Yukito Kishiro has stated that the film production retained “respect for the source material” and while there were parts that deviated from the original work, he said “the core of the story is quite in tact.” It seems likely, given that Alita is the core and constant element of Battle Angel, that Desty Nova is rather one of these deviations. Yet, Robert Rodriguez’s statement remains — seven months later — the sole mention of the character in all promotion. His lack of presence seems to indicate to me that he will be absent or, at the very most, reduced to an ambiguous cameo role à la the Emperor part in The Phantom Menace. Whatever the case, the evidence thus far doesn’t suggest a character at all similar or as prominent as his manga counterpart.