Alita: Battle Angel succeeds where other cyberpunk films have failed

James Cameron’s long-delayed passion project gives its titular cyborg a healthy dose of humanity.

February 7, 2019
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In order to create the film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Alita: Battle Angel (known in Japan as Gunnm), James Cameron—known as the mastermind behind classic sci-fi franchises like The Terminator series and the space-fantasy world of Avatar—was handed the challenge of creating something unique from someone else’s original material. After initially being introduced to the manga by Guillermo del Toro, throughout the early 2000s, Cameron was forced to put the project on hold as the success (and sequels) of Avatar demanded his attention. At the same time, Cameron was also waiting for the technolog to catch up to his vision for Alita. In retrospect, delaying the project was a proactive measure—historically, live-action adaptations of manga have been almost universally panned for its inability to capture the essence of the genre. Now, nearly two decades after the film was conceived, Cameron can now bring over 40 years of experience and an unparalleled affinity for science fiction to Alita: Battle Angel’s cyberpunk universe.

Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction set in a world where highly advanced technology causes a massive social shift. Foundational texts like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and William Gibson’s Neuromancer paved the way for the futuristic investigations of how technology could affect one’s social class, political affiliations, and even personal agency. As the name denotes, cyberpunk typically circulates around an underground culture that results from the new or recently recontextualized uses of technology, particularly with regards to the human body. Investigations of cyberpunk’s human-machine relations by theorist Donna Haraway lead to her publishing A Cyborg Manifesto in 1985, which interrogated the posthumanist construction of consciousness and the blurry distinction between human and machine brought about by the increase in unintrusive tech-assisted living. Typically in cyberpunk films, the “cyborg” is disconnected from humanity and to seek more “human” aspects of the self is considered a radical position.

To successfully execute Alita: Battle Angel meant constructing a tight vision.

Nearly 40 years after cyberpunk was added as an appendage to the genre of science fiction, Cameron began to flesh out the character of Alita—a young cyborg woman on a mission to find herself—when his own daughter was 13. The series opens with Alita as a severed, but intact, head found discarded in a junk heap by cybernetic physician Daisuke Ido (played by Christoph Waltz). Throughout the film, Ido rebuilds Alita and guides her through her process of self-rediscovery as she fights through amnesia to reconstruct her past. Positioned as both a coming-of-age story and an examination of what defines humanity, to successfully execute Alita: Battle Angel meant constructing a tight vision of the titular character.

In an interview with the AV Club Rosa Salazar who plays Alita described her as “a girl who is trying to discover and understand her own infinity,” a statement that captures the ethos and ambition of the film. Her characterization is crucial, allowing viewers to empathize with Alita’s anxiety around being “not entirely human” and displaying otherworldly strength. As she prepared for the role, Salazar immersed herself in the character: utilizing “The Five Page Declaration of Alita,” which was written for her by Cameron, to inform her on-screen performance, in addition to printing out and colouring every page of the first Battle Angel Alita publication in order to “spend more time” with the character.

No stranger to strong female protagonists, Cameron likens Alita’s character development as the reverse of The Terminator’s Sarah Connor, where rather than searching for the origin of strength after miraculously being found, Alita is a warrior spirit in search of herself. In a lengthy 20th Century Fox Q&A session, Cameron stressed that the production required “the right people to raise [Alita] together,” an attitude that shines clearly through the father-daughter relationship Alita forms with Ido, as he grapples with “parenting” a young adult and enables her agency, ultimately letting her make decisions about her body and future. The humanity gifted to Alita, both by the production team and the other characters, establishes a deep empathy for her struggle. Instead of a cyborg in search of more human memories (see the Major from Ghost in the Shell), Alita is a full, but childlike person trying to uncover a knowledge of her body.

Leading up to the film’s release, Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez both identified the importance of grounding Alita’s story in a reality that allowed for fantastical bends. We see this in the use of performance capture technology which intentionally does not obscure Salazar’s features, allowing Alita to maintain a necessary humanity (save for Rodriguez’s contribution of her unignorable “anime eyes”). Elsewhere, Salazar prepared for the role with help from martial arts trainer and stuntman Keith Hirabayash, who not only taught her the technique of fighting but also about the integral emotional components of martial arts.

In Alita: Battle Angel, rather than critiquing the social landscape, the film opts for an exploration into the self.

In most printed mangas, fight scenes are crucial narrative elements—the ability to precisely capture moments within fights allow the viewer to familiarize themselves with characters, and prevent action sequences from becoming blurs of violence. Alita: Battle Angel takes place in Iron City, a city where there is a ban on guns and technology use is limited. Due to this unusual setting for a cyberpunk film, the fight scenes are a focal point of the film.

In Alita, the use of slow-motion and dramatic pauses allow the viewer to take in all aspects of the altercation, a technique has been praised in the anime adaptation of One Punch Man, and is mirrored in the care taken to match Alita’s physical strength with her emotional complexity. Early viewings of Alita have praised the attention to authenticity applied to the film’s action sequences (which is a quality that sets the film apart from other CGI-heavy franchises like the Marvel movies, whose sequences often fall flat). Cameron put a similar emphasis on Kishiro’s vision, even having Kishiro on set during the scene where Alita breaks Ido’s medical implement tray out of unbridled anger; one of many shots taken directly from the source.

Ultimately, Alita’s capacity for love and her well-tamed power threatens Tiphares, the film’s “promised land” designed in the spirit of a classic cyberpunk trope: a commercially-controlled government with a monopoly over the mechanical necessities of cyborg survival. In Alita: Battle Angel, rather than critiquing the social landscape, the film opts for an exploration into the self. At its core, the films biggest accomplishment is the construction and execution of Alita herself, who not only has the capacity to feel uneasy about the limitations her own humanity, but is capable of the agency afforded to humankind, despite materially being a cyborg.

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