Alita: Battle Angel
A week has gone since I watched Alita: Battle Angel. It's a film that left me feeling similar emotions to the cyborg-driven techno-fireworks in Ghost in the Shell (2018), the emotion of 'almost.' Visually, there's a lavish sci-fi splendour to the film, bearing the wonders you desire in a mixture of escapist sci-fi and fantasy: cities in the sky, and awkward technologies of a post-apocalyptic noir: miracle weapons that sit side by side with a downtrodden people of diverse languages, with their street food and sandals. The canvas of this film, with its believable communities and relationship with technologies, has potential: a step-up from the disappointing Elysium (2016) and Ready Player One (2018).
Of course there's also the eye-catching cyborg protagonist, Alita, whose personal journey carries the film. More than ever, cinema has its embodiment of the Freudian Uncanny, of a figure who lives that aesthetic so familiar to transgender narratives of What's Wrong With This Picture?, a figure whose physicality – with her Animé eyes – doesn't quite allow her to conform to the ordinary, and leaves her with a sense of Impostor Syndrome. A friend of mine said they wouldn't watch the film due to this 'Uncanniness' of the character; for me, this was the whole beautiful point.
So why did the film leave me feeling 'almost'? Partly, it's the lightness of touch. To be a physical outcast is a traumatic thing, but Alita seems less traumatized than at times frustrated. Psychologically, this is skimming the surface with issues of embodiment and conformity, fine for a popcorn movie, but disappointing to my transgender eyes. I wanted more: a heroine without a typical childhood who craves normality in the way the cyborgs of Blade Runner protect their uploaded memories. I wanted love in all its awkward insecurity, but in romantic terms Alita quickly wins the lottery with the hottest ticket in town. In turn, the fate of her new boyfriend doesn't convince as he exchanges one body for another before rushing off to his own destiny, all these transformations occurring in the blink of an eye. Also frustrating was the ending, by setting up a sequel in so explicit an unresolved way that it sucked much of the movie's drama with it, leaving it bereft of a self-contained value.
Visually spectacular, then, with a likeable heroine, Alita: Battle Angel is fun sci-fi fare; as cyborg narrative and exploration of the physical Uncanny, it's too shallow to have much profundity or resonance. Yet bearing in mind it's also a celebration of a figure who occupies difference, Alita: Battle Angel is still, ultimately, a film for our times, one to be welcomed for the triumph of its uncanny heroine.