Movies

Alita: Battle Angel Is A Movie About Our Post-Human Future—and Proof It's Already Here

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20th Century Fox/Lightstorm Entertainment

Alita: Battle Angel works a casual post-humanism into nearly every facet of its world. The film, a mega-budget adaptation of a popular manga series by filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron, is set in a far-future post-war society where cyborgs are so common as to be unremarkable: People have robot arms, robot legs, and even, like the title character, full-fledged robot bodies. Sometimes their robotic add-ons look like high-end limb replacements, but often they appear more like industrial machinery grafted on to the human form. It's a movie that raises the question, why drive a lift when you can be one?

There's a low-level market logic to this post-human landscape: The owners of these parts pay for upgrades and maintenance, and, because they are worth something, thieves occasionally try to steal the most valuable parts. When the movie opens, we see one mostly roboticized worker, more dirt-mover than man, paying for some limb repairs with a bag of fresh oranges. Adam Smith long ago noted that humans have a "propensity to truck, barter, and trade." Alita assumes this holds true even when the human in question looks like an actual truck.

The various modifications are employed to facilitate heavy work, to play games, and, rather frequently, to fight (this is, after all, an action movie). At times the movie suggests these people are being exploited by various economic and political forces, but it never seems to pine for a return to a purely organic way of living. It does not embrace a post-human future so much as accept its usefulness and inevitability.

Alas, the movie itself could use some upgrades. Although Alita fills the screen with delightfully zany sci-fi ideas and imagery, the script, by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, is composed largely of expository treacle punctuated by dull hero's journey pablum.

The supporting cast speaks mostly in monologues designed to explain bits of backstory to Alita, a cyborg head found in a trash pile and given a new life and body by the kindly Dr. Ido (Christopher Waltz, who mostly seems to wonder what he's doing in this movie). Alita, who wakes up in her new body with no memory of her past, tends to respond by affirming her power and identity—"this is who I am" and so on and so forth. But she's written as such a blank that all we really end up knowing about her, aside from some sci-fi backstory about how she became so powerful, is that she's the sort of person who says "this is who I am" a lot.

The screenplay's expository tendencies are compounded by its habit of on-the-nose naming: The story is set in Iron City, an urban industrial zone dominated by something called the Factory, which is, well, you can probably guess. Iron City exists in the shadow of Zalem, the last of the great "sky cities" (you'll never guess what these are), the rest of which fell to Earth hundreds of years earlier, in an event known as, er, "The Fall." The most popular sport is called Motorball, a mechanized game involving motors and balls, and the city has no law but is patrolled by ruthless mercenaries called Hunter-Killers. The name is self-explanatory, but the script offers potted dialogue to explain it anyway.

The overall effect is that Alita feels less like a movie and more like a lavishly rendered Wikipedia entry—a competent but joyless summary of fictional lore and plot details designed to tell you what the movie is about rather than help you come to understand it. It might have been better as a silent film with accompanying footnotes.

Indeed, the visuals are often breathtaking, particularly when it comes to Alita herself, who is rendered as a doll-like creature with unnaturally large and expressive eyes, as are common in Japanese manga. As played by Rosa Salazar, with a heavy assist from the movie's special effects team, Alita is a marvel of big-budget moviemaking, a largely successful attempt to cross the uncanny valley by situating a character squarely within it. With the help of motion capture, which converts an actor's movements into computer animation, Salazar is a kind of virtual cyborg herself—a human performer upgraded by computer-generated enhancements. She has been modified for her professional advancement and our entertainment, to astounding and occasionally unnerving results. The movie has no soul, but at times it almost convinced me she does.

As a story designed to engage the heart and mind, Alita: Battle Angel is less human than human. Yet as a demonstration of Hollywood's technical prowess, it advances its own sci-fi premise: The post-human future is already here.

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  1. If post-humanism means an ultra violent dystopia in a hellish landscape, then this is positive representation.

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  2. This movie doesn’t interest me at all. I blame the eyes.

    1. I understand the reaction, but the eyes are kinda demanded by the original material. The manga that starts this is quite stylized and either you like that sort of thing or you don’t.

  3. I’m intrigued by the talent, but I had a feeling this movie would play it safe on the story. The CGI is so prevalent that I think they were embracing the idea of movie-as-visual-medium (which movies are) and the story is just a tapestry to pin pretty CGI things onto.

    I’ll watch anything about post-humanism or cybernetics though. I’ve had the itch since the first Deus Ex was released to PC.

    1. In many ways, this is all James Cameron movies are: Formulaic plot serving as a vehicle for special effects. Terminator, Aliens and Titanic were largely the same journey- girl is in peril. Girl meets guy. Guy teaches girl to fight for herself. Girl carries on under her own strength. Terminator 2 mixed it up a bit with the Robot/Mom being the strength giver and a 12 year old boy instead of the girl. Avatar was just Dances with Wolves with giant smurfs. All in all, they are standard derivative tropes.

      But Cameron is a great visual artist. Even in True Lies (which is probably Cameron’s most unique script), there are so many amazing shots. The way sunlight and reflections play off buildings during the helicopter chase- even the nuclear bomb explosion. It is so well done. And Avatar truly did make an art of 3D, even if I couldn’t stomach the enviro-fantasy.

      1. You make some excellent points. Cameron gets a lot of credit for ‘groundbreaking’ SF, mostly from people unfamiliar with Science Fiction in print. This is actually fairly common in film. Reviewers RAVED about THE MATRIX. Granted, the visuals were great, but the story was one written SF had kinda driven into the ground on all points.

        The same is true of ALITA, and was true of the Manga as well.

    1. Fembots have too much overhead. It’s going to be VR.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84-ZInHIAfU

      1. Fembots are too high maintenance?

    2. she’s on her way, in the flying car, her jet-pack malfunctioned…

  4. You know, I have noticed that the vast majority of people who review movies nowdays really suck at it, and are snotty, elitist, jaded, and lack much experience in life or art – or indeed much of anything.

    Homey needs to go watch some anime to see an emerging (well 15-20 years on now, I guess, lol) art form that is really pushing the edge of technology and interesting genres – which this movie is also a reflection of. He’ll be busy for a while at that, since there’s so much of it (even english dubbed), that he’ll be at it for years.

    1. Meh- most of the movie adaptations of anime loose much of the charm that makes anime so enjoyable. Part of it is forcing a bunch of graphic novels into a 2hr story.

    2. I agree the many reviewers are snotty elitists. This guy does have a point about ALITA, but hasn’t done his homework; the manga was also preachy and sort of obvious (comic books CAN be subtle, but mostly aren’t). And like this movie, the visual were pretty much the whole point.

      I miss Roger Ebert; he backslid a little toward the end, gushing over films that were The Latest (Liberal) Thing and going more PC than previously, but he had a knack for saying “This film is trashy, but it’s so much fun I just don”t care, and you won’t either if your soul isn’t dead”.

      Also, his review of STORMY MONDAY was poetry. Absolutely beautiful.

      It would have been nice if the filmmakers had made something more out of ALITA, but ‘Super female beats evil creeps with break for simplistic exposition’ is a pretty faithful interpretation of the material.

      If anything, the anime was worse.

      Now GHOST IN THE SHELL, STAND ALONE COMPLEX is some of the best science fiction ever put on any kind of screen. Streets better than the theatrical anime (which is more allegory than SF), but like Western ‘SF’ film and TV, most anime SF is Space Opera. And while Spare Opera can be great fun, it is more Fantasy than SF.

      1. some one is way too invested in imaginary shit…

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  7. A commentary/movie review so boring it could only have been written by an English major….

  8. the use of the words zany, treacle and pablum in a two sentence paragraph disqualify the critic from any post-human existence…it’s clearly stated in the rules

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  10. Great special effects, fight sequences, world design

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