[Ohhh… slow on publishing this… jet-lagged and not really coping. I don’t have anything to say in this post that professional writers haven’t already argued months ago but again, I want to remain in the practice of saying anything at all. So, some edited notes I took on the plane.]
I want to start with a question: to anyone who has watched the live-action adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel, did it have a plot? Reviewing these notes now, I’m trying to remember what happened in the movie and can only come up with a few establishing vignettes strung along by a character thread — the amnesiac cyborg heroine Alita — instead of a narrative one.
Of course, I’m already being too harsh; a plot can be as simple as what a character does. Going to the corner store to buy a soda like I just did tonight could count as a plot and Alita certainly does… things. She falls in love and fights a bunch of underworld thugs and uncovers a conspiracy and discovers her true self and becomes roller-derby champion and whatever else.
But what I more mean is that the movie lacks the sort of recognizable narrative you might expect from a blockbuster cinematic experience — rising and falling action moving towards a climactic goal. Because — to spoil something that doesn’t happen — Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t end. Or rather, like with the distinction between plot and narrative, it doesn’t conclude. When the movie finally seems ready to move into its climax — Alita will confront the true puppet-master antagonist lurking in the floating city above! — it abruptly stops. Having spent two hours establishing the universe and character motivations, a hype song plays, Alita looks up to the sky determined to face the ‘final boss,’ and the credits roll.
I blinked in disbelief. Ending? Now? Um, alright, 8 hours left in the flight, let’s try The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot. Ugh, well that was terrible. Let’s take a nap instead.
I don’t want to call Alita’s ‘end’ a cliffhanger because the audience already knows what will happen next (and the original manga source material confirms it): Alita will confront the true puppet-master antagonist lurking in the floating city above! Instead, I think that Alita only ended because it ran out of time. I watched the movie as a time-waster on a twelve-hour flight so I never worried much about an efficient use of that time, but after the credits rolled, I tapped the screen to check and — oh, oops — already 122 minutes? But I feel like we’ve only just started…
I wonder if the movie doesn’t end because the studio executives and screenwriter-producer James Cameron gambled on turning Alita: Battle Angel into a multi-episode series like Star Wars or maybe even a full cinematic universe like The Avengers (but shouldn’t Cameron be busy enough already with his Avatar franchise, 10 years in the making for the first of four sequels? Ughhh). To that end, Alita suffers from a severe corporate artificiality that goes beyond its cyborg sci-fi premise and extensive reliance on computer-generated graphics that made me distrust even the melancholy intelligence around Christoph Waltz’s crow-footed eyes (or, more obviously, Alita’s CGI anime eyes. Plenty of people have written about the uncanniness there so just a short comment: for as much as I joke that I wish anime were real, yope!, not like that).
In regards to artifice, one moment struck me when I glanced up from my phone while the credits rolled: a line to the effect that thousands of people had contributed millions of work-hours to the film. To me, it described Alita: Battle Angel not as a labor of love, but of labor, period, in the style of a film industry lobbyist trying to convince a bored congressional committee to extend additional tax privileges and copy-right protections to the already massive, corporatized film studios because they ‘create jobs’ (and on corporatization, Alita’s studio, 20th Century Fox, was recently acquired by Disney for a commanding 35% share of the domestic movie market). Alita: Battle Angel felt economic, not artistic, a product, not a piece.
I can’t help but to compare Alita to Hollywood’s other big recent Japanese anime-manga import, Ghost In the Shell (2017). I won’t dip into fan mud-flinging between the two movies because I didn’t much like either of them, but at least Ghost in the Shell had the dignity to end and you could argue that the computerized artificiality in the movie supported a thematic narrative inherited from the source material about a cyberpunk future dominated by dehumanizing techo-artifice.
Alita: Battle Angel has a similar setting but none of attempted headiness; it’s not much more than a basicissimo teenage coming-of-age story with some competent action and a rushed romance a la The Hunger Games (and then again, at least Hunger Games can claim to pay lip service a bigger if banal point about wealth inequality or food insecurity or whatever). But beyond Alita herself, what is Alita: Battle Angel about? I could answer the plot question even if I don’t think Alita has a complete narrative, but I’m drawing blanks trying to identify a theme. It teases a little about what it might mean to be human brain in a cyborg body, but loses much of that to focus on the amnesia problem used to establish Alita’s character. Like with the plot, Alita: Battle Angel leaves the point for the sequel.
Despite my criticisms of Alita’s artificiality, I won’t go so far to call it cynical (like I dunno, the Garfield reboot that Disney scrapped after it purchased 20th Century Fox. The world wept.) because it had an authentic enough vigor, especially in Rosa Salazar’s energetic lead performance as Alita. But it does feel so safe and bland and corporate: no punk for the cyberpunk setting, no satirical edge for the dystopia, just rah rah heroic optimism to justify some feel-good violence.
I have nothing to discuss with Alita. After landing and flicking my phone back off airplane mode, I tried with a couple of friends who had also watched it on a flight between America and Japan. One made it an hour, the other just half that, before they got out their Nintendo Switches to play Mario Kart. As it turned out though, their inability to finish the movie didn’t impact our conversation because again, Alita didn’t end. But that didn’t even matter either because all any of us could conclude was “Yeah, it was alright.” Empty entertainment to pass the time, like Mario Kart. Uhhh…
Alita: Battle Angel: good enough for a 12 hour flight, but what else?