The Humanity of Alita: Battle Angel

My first introduction to Alita: Battle Angel wasn’t the manga or the OVA (original video adaptation) released during its run, but the trailer for the live-action adaptation coming from Hollywood. The internet did what it does best after it dropped, creating memes and online discourse because of the unusually big eyes of the protagonist, and despite the obvious uncanny valley vibes from seeing what looked like an anime character in real life, I found myself instantly immersed with the trailer. This young woman, half human and half robot, trying to remember where she came from with nothing to go on but the fact that she’s a deadly weapon. I was hooked. I knew I had to see it.

The film was pushed back twice—a July 2018 release date pushed to December 2018 then finally February 2019—but every trailer released from then to now only got better, giving us just a glimpse at what looked like an incredible world seen through the eyes of Alita, the protagonist. My expectations were sky high by the time it was released on Valentine’s Day, my excitement fueled on pure hype by my fascination with the story and the minds behind the project: James Cameron’s passion project that he trusted Robert Rodriguez to adapt; it took over a decade for the film to come to life since its inception in the early 00s.

For someone who had no previous ties to or knowledge of the manga, I was immediately invested in Alita’s story. Who was this mysterious cyborg? Why did she fall from the sky? What was her past like? These are questions that not only the audience have, but also questions Alita has herself when she’s pieced back together by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Although not related, the father/daughter dynamic between Dr. Ido and Alita forms naturally and while this is expected from a talent like Christoph Waltz, it’s believable because of Rosa Salazar.

Rosa Salazar’s performance is the heart of the film. Alita is a character who’s complex, she battles with identity of who she was versus who she is now, of what’s expected of her versus what she wants to do and at the end of the day, despite having unbelievable strength, she’s a young woman who wants to live like a young woman. She wants to experience adventure and love for the first time like we all do. Salazar portrays all of these emotions with such earnest conviction that you forget that her face and body are mostly CGI. And yes, you forget that she has anime eyes. She’s that good in the role.

What’s so powerful about Salazar’s performance is the fact that you feel so many emotions for her because she’s someone who’s still discovering herself. She’s not perfect. She makes mistakes. I laughed for her, I cried for her, I was frustrated by her most importantly, I rooted for her. She’s a warrior, but she also has a heart and her heart unapologetically leads the film.

Alita’s relationship with Dr. Ido echoes any protective parent who wants their child to follow the rules put in place and like any rebellious teenager, Alita betrays them. Like all of us, she falls hopelessly in love. You may roll your eyes at how cliché the romance with Hugo can get but there’s a freshness to it because of the expectations that are put on Alita. She’s a weapon, she’s dangerous, she can kill. There are people who want to use and hurt her and that causes her battle instincts kick in like second nature. But she’s more than just a weapon. She has needs, wants, desires. She struggles to find a way to balance being a killing machine, being in a relationship and basically having a father figure who constantly worries for her. Her struggles reveal her humanity and like Hugo tells her, Alita is more human than anyone else. There’s an emotional connection with Alita: Battle Angel that hits stronger than most blockbusters. Maybe it’s because blockbusters rely heavily on the spectacle but Alita does the opposite while still impressing with epic visuals. She is a complete badass, she can switch from someone who’s admiring this new world around her with wide (no pun intended) eyes to a warrior who can take out a bar of crooks in the blink of an eye. She isn’t afraid or ashamed to be curious, her naivety is even inspiring because of her determination to never give up.

While the film has the mainstream appeal of being an exciting adventure to watch, Alita is ultimately a story about self-discovery and that’s what makes the film stand out among the numerous action-packed blockbusters we get every year. Alita’s journey to self-discovery goes beyond her own experiences. While watching the movie, I was struck with a sudden déjà vu: I had felt this way before. Years ago when I was sixteen, I watched Sucker Punch—another film that I saw just on pure excitement based on the trailers—and I instantly knew there was a reason why I connected with Alita. This movie spoke to me on another level like Sucker Punch did, films that anyone can enjoy but with a message to women about the power that they hold. We’re allowed to make mistakes, allowed to doubt ourselves, allowed to be close with others whether that be through friendships or romantic relationships, and despite the traumas we may experience, we’re not defined by them. We’re defined by who we choose to be. That’s the power that the girls in Sucker Punch have, that’s the power that Alita has. A personal message hidden in plain sight of a visual spectacle of a film, a message that everyone may not pick up on but it’s there. There’s a brilliance to choosing this kind of emotionally-driven approach when it comes to blockbusters, it surprises you because it’s unexpected. It’s hidden in the films that you wouldn’t think would care to include, but that’s what makes them special. Alita: Battle Angel is special; years from now the film will be revisited and these themes of humanity and self-discovery will become obvious, but for some of us, it’s clear right now.