Ten years ago James Cameron made Avatar, one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It was supposed to revolutionize movie technology. Instead, Cameron disappeared from the movies, everyone’s forgotten Avatar, and its 3D technology has failed to change almost anything. Instead, the real revolution in movies has been Netflix. Convenient. But hardly futuristic.
Directors as popular as Spielberg and as prestigious as Scorsese have tried their hand at 3D since Cameron amazed the world with Avatar, but without much success. But the industry hasn’t given up yet, and this year the man trying his luck is Robert Rodriguez, of Sin City fame. Twentieth Century Fox bet $200 million on his movie Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of a Japanese manga by Yukito Kishiro, Gunm. Cameron wrote and produced the film and his Lightstorm Entertainment company was also involved in the production, which will have to satisfy Cameron fans for now.
I don’t know if Alita: Battle Angel will earn a fortune. But it reveals five features of our future storytelling. It has something more attractive than Avatar’s everyman-hero among blue aliens—a computer-generated girl with the immense eyes typical of manga characters, played by Rosa Salazar. We’re talking about an animated character in a live-action film, but it’s getting harder and harder to tell, since our stories seem to be converging through visual effects toward a new kind of digital representation. If this is the future, one wonders if people will even be able to look back to 20th century cinema and recognize the actors or the characters they played.
To say our protagonist looks realistic doesn’t begin to do justice to the character Salazar plays, since the story makes it as complicated to think about her as human as it is to recognize how she’s depicted technologically. Alita is a cyborg, a human brain with a heart made of some futuristic power source that gives her immense strength. She’s a Battle Angel—a trained warrior in a girl’s body. War seems to dominate the thinking in our popular storytelling and it reaches a rare purity of expression in this case, in which war comes out of a girl’s innocence.
The world she inhabits is post-apocalyptic, as the future always is in our stories. After an inter-planetary civil war, large parts of our world have been destroyed, reduced to garbage heaps and ruins. A terrible oligarchy rules from Zalem, a floating city that seems all-powerful. The poor masses live underneath it, in Iron City, which is mostly slums dominated by techno-military surveillance. They’re entertained by a bloodsport combining racing, skating, and fights to the death between cyborgs with various weapons.
Originality doesn’t matter anymore—that’s the first feature of our new story-telling. The slum city resembles Blade Runner, like every other visionary movie about the future. The floating city recalls to mind the recent movie Elysium and any number of other stories since Gulliver’s Travels came up with the idea. And, of course, we’ve seen the bloodsport in several movies: Rollerball, Death Race, The Running Man, etc. Since most viewers haven’t seen most of those movies and movies are now made for viewers, not critics or other movie-makers, it’ll seem new and that’s all that matters.
Instead—and this is the second feature—character is what matters. The agony of this girl who has to lose everything over and over again is what keeps the viewer watching what seems to be the first film in a franchise—that is, if viewers find her suffering as affecting and her childish beauty as winning as Rodriguez and Cameron hope.
And so the story continuously urges our pity. Our Battle Angel is found in a garbage heap by a cybernetics doctor (played by two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz). He gives her a robot body, an image of his daughter, herself a cripple and a murder victim as a teenager. This sentimental suggestion of resurrection makes Dickens and Victor Hugo seem cynical in comparison!
He also names the Battle Angel Alita, for his daughter (the word is Spanish; it means little wing, the diminutive again playing to sentimentality and suggesting frailty). He plays father to her as she returns to life. This, too, is meant to tug at our hearts: the girl’s sense of wonder at a life that’s new to her, since she has no memory of her past, as well as the relationship with her doctor and the sense that she is a convalescing patient. By the time she finds a handsome, dashing boyfriend, only a heart made out of some futuristic metal power source could fail to love her!
But that’s not enough to make a movie—it lacks conflict. Hence the third, strangest feature: an earnest mix of sentimentality and cruelty. Every sweet moment in the movie is complemented by savage violence bordering on atrocity.
And yet Alita: Battle Angel lacks a real villain. There are three henchmen of the floating city’s evil ruling power. First, the corrupt administrator of the bloodsport, played by a bored Mahershala Ali (whose career has gone great since his Oscar-winning role in 2016’s Moonlight). Then, a giant cyborg with vast metal muscles, voiced by the great Jackie Earle Haley. Finally, a vain, treacherous bounty hunter with a magical sword, played by Ed Skrein, who briefly plays the diabolic tempter. But Alita is invincible and beyond temptation, so it’s just as well these villainous figures are on screen for less than a quarter of the movie.
The fourth feature—seldom talked about, but very important—is a desperate search for purity in suffering. The movie is shockingly, comically obvious on this point. To prove her love, Alita literally takes her heart out and offers it to her boyfriend. This storytelling element has been routine in Japanese manga for more than a generation, but now we do it, too. Remember Rey, of the new Star Wars films, who’s also morally pure and surrounded by atrocities, and who also finds unconquerable powers conveniently waiting for her. Far more than the fault of writers, this is the burning wish of the popular audience. There’s billions to be made in purity!
Alita: Battle Angel copies all the social-criticism of the futuristic movies I mentioned above, but is indifferent to their liberalism. Its metaphors are psychological, not social. It doesn’t blame suffering on poverty or lack of enlightenment. It doesn’t condescend therapeutically to suffering, but instead almost worships it. Alita is an abandoned child and the logic of her story, as of so many nowadays, is orphanhood, not the evil patriarchy or the debasement of capitalism. Instead of rational control through liberal ideology, we get perpetual striving.
So the fifth, final, most surprising feature of our future storytelling is commitment to war as the answer to suffering. This is typical of Japanese manga, but new to Hollywood dystopian storytelling. Alita really is a battle angel. She’s not a badass or a symbol of female-empowerment who defeats an enemy and returns to peace. There’s no overcoming here. Alita needs her suffering to find her powers, which involve not only technology, but also her memories. She fully embraces war as her mission in life—her destiny. This is a new way of thinking about heroes.
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