Alita: Battle Angel is an action-packed spectacle about what it means to be human

A cyborg in the form of a teenage girl attempts to find her purpose in a confusing future world. Alita: Battle Angel lightens the heavy heart of Japanese apocalyptic fiction with some Hollywood spectacle, writes critic Luke Buckmaster.

Films like Alita: Battle Angel, which portray intimate relationships between people and manufactured beings, inevitably pose big questions. About what it means to be human, for instance, a line of inquiry that tends to be triggered by mechanical thing-me-bobs intrigued by our way of life. Even the plasticky, grindhouse-y, action-packed and unpretentious approach we have come to expect from director Robert Rodriguez can’t help but get a little bit deep with this sort of material, in between wall-rattling set pieces and servings of splashy futuristic eye candy. Rodriguez and executive producer James Cameron’s blockbuster aspirant draws from a 1990s manga series, lightening the heavy heart of Japanese apocalypse fiction with some gooey Hollywood spectacle.

In Alita, an inventor type character, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, in Mister Geppetto mode) restores to life a robot he finds while trawling through huge mounds of garbage, which reach to the heavens like the skyscrapers of detritus in the Pixar masterpiece Wall-E. A smidge of Frankensteining later, the protagonist emerges from the operating table and experiences the world as if for the first time, unable to remember anything about her previous existence. A tear rolls down her cheek when she admits that she cannot even recall her name.

The melancholia of this moment is offset by the doctor’s matter-of-fact response: “At least your tears are working,” he says, undermining a genuine reaction and expressing a core talking point of this film – the task of defining what is or is not human and/or human-esque. An even stranger interaction occurs later, when Alita and her fully human boyfriend Hugo (Keean Johnson, doing the most he can with a blandly written character) share a tender moment in the rain, beau assuring robo-lover that “you are the most human person I have ever met,” foretelling a world in which humanity is a genre of consciousness to aspire to – or perhaps for superior beings to simply collect, like a Tazo or a basketball card.

In the design of the main character, played in performance capture technology by Rosa Salazar, the point is made that the act of exaggerating one human feature is alone enough to draw attention to the difference between a body and a contraption. In the case of Alita it is her eyes: her huge, doe-like, impossibly large eyes, which embody key elements of the broader experience and vice versa (in that the film too is big, childlike and beautiful in an otherworldly way).

Rodriguez opts for Spielbergian largesse and picture book aesthetic – particularly in the introductory moments – rejecting the idea that cyberpunk looks better when you throw a little dirt on the lens and/or bathe the frame in neon lights and shadows. An interesting early shot of a street busker playing a double-necked guitar with three (all prosthetic) arms preempts one of the most compelling elements of this world – which broadly speaking involves transhumanism, and specifically a thriving black market for prosthetic body parts. The existence of this black market feels, like the nature of some of the film’s conversations (“you are the most human person I have ever met”) less like a possibility for the future than a virtual fait accompli. One day people will be shopping there and talking like that.

Alita is a fiendishly good fighter, the protagonist’s arse-kicking skills connected to her unremembered past. As a result of this many of the martial arts-inspired action scenes aren’t very thrilling; she fights in auto-pilot, as if an internal switch labelled “CRUSH KILL DESTROY” has been flicked, and damn any swinish face that gets in the way. Moments involving a futuristic skating sport named Motorball – which is similar to a game played in the schlocky Dean Cain telemovie Futuresport, though one draws no pride in recalling that – are more fun, though a frantically entertaining scene that segues from stadium-set spectacle into traditional chase is bizarrely cut short.

More sci-fi texts than you could possibly count inform Alita’s lineage, though the film isn’t as stock-standard as one might expect. There are tragic elements that are unquestionably bold, and the story’s reliance on Motorball as the central point around which everything else orbits curiously suggests a future where politics and sport have become intractably meshed. As a contemplation of what it means to be human, Alita is a minor vision in our collective electric sheep dreaming, not holding a candle to great works also about youthful anthropomorphised apparatus attracted to human fineness and folly – such as Pinocchio and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But as a spectacle-slathered B movie it’s got some philosophically chewy ideas, and a lot of spunk.