I wish Alita: Battle Angel had been made by a woman. The cyberpunk action film inspired by Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm, could have been a game-changer in the way women — and specifically teenage girls — are portrayed on screen. A bounty-hunter cyborg with the power to bring down toxic masculinity? Sign me up!
The year is 2563. According to the introductory text, the world was essentially destroyed in an all-encompassing battle three hundred years prior, nicknamed “The Fall.” Two cities remain: Zolum, the sky city where the rich and powerful live, and Iron City, where the normals trudge by, hoping to pick up a scrap of fallen sky garbage that might make their luck. That’s exactly what happens to Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who finds an unconscious but intact teenage girl cyborg head in the junkyard, and brings her back to his ersatz clinic to fix (in this world, where humans often have robotic limbs, doctors are also electrical engineers). When she wakes, the cyborg girl has no memories of her past, so Ido gives her a future. Her name will be Alita, and she can act as a substitute daughter for the one he so violently lost many years ago.
The fact that a man gives this “insignificant girl” (her words) an identity is your first hint that this might not be the empowering movie it’s being marketed as. And indeed, Alita is brimming with male gaze. I counted four women with speaking parts, defined extremely loosely: Alita; Ido’s ex-wife Chiren and fellow doctor/machine wizard (Jennifer Connelly), who’s now involved with Iron City top gangster Vector (Mahershala Ali in the most stylish glasses known to man);Nyssiana (Eiza González), a killer cyborg and bounty hunter who threatens Alita; and Koyomi (Lana Condor), a friend of Alita’s love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson), who has exactly one line. Because these women barely speak to each other, the film does not pass The Bechdel Test.
And speaking of Hugo — why does Alita need a love interest? He just slows her down. And from the moment they first meet — comically, he’s framed as her savior, even if she can technically crush him with her pinkie — he becomes her driving motivator. We know all about his dream: Hugo wants to ascend to Zolum, a goal that proves to be more ambitious than you’d think. Turns out, you don’t get to live in the sky unless you’re born to it. But just what Alita wants, besides to be with Hugo and maybe remember what happened to her in her past life, is unclear. Even her eventual showdown with Nova (Ed Norton), Zolum’s overlord and Alita’s sworn enemy, puts Hugo front and center.
Plot aside, there’s also an unsettling sexualization of Alita throughout the film, from the way the camera pans up her teenage cyborg body, to a truly ridiculous moment where she grows large breasts because it’s “reconfigured to her imagined image.” This is fairly on-brand for Rodriguez, whose body of work (Sin City, Planet Terror, and Death Proof, among others) has pretty much coined the genre of “badass fighter women who are also objectified hotties subject to men’s whims.” At some point, Alita is actually described as having “the face of an angel and a body built for battle.”
Alita has been on Cameron’s (Titanic, Avatar) to-do list for nearly 20 years, but this seems to have muddled his vision rather than sharpened it. The script, which he co-wrote with Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) and Rodriguez, is clunky and full of cliches. It’s all the more disappointing because the world they have brought to life is a visual feast, immensely creative, and full of possibilities. There’s hints of Kalogridis’ Netflix show Altered Carbon in the division between sky and Earth, the aspirational and the gritty, bleak existence of the masses. And “Motorball,” Iron City’s bloody, violent sport of choice is thrilling to watch.
Through a series of flashbacks, Alita slowly figures out the key to her identity. But even that is more sad than fulfilling — the woman she used to be appears more free and focused on her own agenda than the woman she’s become. Ultimately, this all feels like a step backwards.