She wakes up in a strange bed, in a strange place. She has no memory of who she is.
Oh, she’s a cyborg, of course. She knows that much. Her body is clearly the delicate work of a master builder, but her mind … her mind’s all her own.
If only she knew more of it.
She comes downstairs and meets Dr. Dyson Ido, her new father, surgeon and savior. He rescued her core—her brain, her head, her heart—from a literal scrap heap: The good doctor specializes in patching up and rebuilding cyborgs in Iron City. He gets most of his spare parts from the massive trash dump beneath Zalem—the beautiful metropolis that hovers high above Iron City’s squalor. As he was picking up an arm here and an eye there, he came across the girl’s core, still remarkably alive and functional after plunging into the garbage heap from above. So Ido took her home and gave her a new body, one originally built for his own daughter.
But the doctor’s daughter is dead now, killed by one of Ido’s very own creations. He had planned to destroy her synthetic body, too, but he just couldn’t. It was too precious to Ido, too painful to scrap. So he kept it around. And now, he finds use for it.
It’s a strong body, imbued with all of Ido’s brilliant skill and deep love. So when he gives the body to its new tenant and discovers she has, for the moment, no memories of her past life, Ido gives her a name, too.
Alita. Just like his daughter.
But as much as Ido might want to resurrect his little girl in this cyborg being, Alita’s no blank slate. She might not remember who she was or what she did, but it’s locked in her brain somewhere.
And slowly, it’s beginning to leak out.
It turns out, Ido’s not just a doctor: He’s something called a hunter-warrior—essentially a bounty hunter who tracks down criminal cyborgs (and, potentially, humans too) and, ahem, neutralizes them, bringing whatever’s left to a central operations hub for cold, hard cash.
It’s a pretty brutal gig, but the cybernetic criminals Ido chases are pretty brutal, too. The tough work that he (and others like him) does keeps Iron City a little bit safer. Moreover, his underlying rationale is pretty honorable, too. Ido moonlights as a hunter-warrior for two reasons: One, it’s a sort of penance for what he sees as his past misdeeds. Two, he needs money for his woefully underfunded clinic. So Ido’s sometimes brutal second job pays for his much-more laudatory first one.
Ido’s perhaps the movie’s most sympathetic character, given his work as a doctor, his firm refusal to go against his own personal ethics and his love for Alita. But obviously, Alita’s the movie’s real hero. She’s a killer, as we eventually learn—literally built for the bloodiest work imaginable. But she’s driven by her own strong moral core, too: “I do not stand by in the presence of evil,” she tells her evil opponents. And it’s pretty clear (as we’ll see below) that she means it.
We could explore tons of interesting spiritual rabbit trails if we had the space, from Alita’s literal “salvation” from the scrap heap to the heaven/earth/hell relationship between the floating city of Zalem and Iron City below. (Interestingly, Zalem, pronounced Zolum in the movie, is in the original manga works called Salem, and a powerful facility at the very top of the city is called “Jeru.” Also, Salem’s head computer was named Melchizedek, a reference to the Abrahamic-era king of Salem from Genesis 14.) That said, the movie’s clearly religious references are fairly minimal.
A guy named Hugo takes Alita to an old husk of a church, where the two of them gaze up at Zalem, and Hugo discusses his desire to get there some day—by any means necessary, he suggests. (The same church later serves as a sanctuary for a seriously injured character.) Hugo thinks Vector, a character who serves as Iron City’s shady commissioner of Motorball (which is a rough-‘n’-tumble mashup between roller derby, rugby and basketball), may be his ticket up to Zalem. But Vector encourages Hugo to stay put, paraphrasing Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven,” he says.
We also hear a couple of metaphorical references to people’s “demons.” One hunter-warrior uses several cyber-dogs called “hellhounds.”
Zalem’s powerful, mysterious ruler is a mostly unseen guy named Nova, who has the power to temporarily infiltrate the minds and bodies of his minions. Many of those minions treat him with the awe typically reserved for either royalty or divinity, bowing and groveling in his presence.
A war hundreds of years ago, resulting in this dystopian environment, is repeatedly called “the Fall.” Someone bears what looks like a rendition of a ritualistic Aztec calendar on the back of his jacket.
Alita’s body may be mechanical, but her mind and heart are all teenage girl. She develops a pretty serious emotional attachment to Hugo—at one point literally offering her heart to him. (It’s a pretty advanced mechanical one. She tells him he could sell it to finance his trip to Zalem, then suggests they could get a cheap knock-off heart elsewhere.) That scene also feels oddly intimate because Alita has to unzip her shirt to get to her chest compartment where the heart is located. Alita wants to run off with Hugo, and he tells her that he loves her, too. The two kiss a few times, but things don’t go any further (given Alita’s cyborg physiology). We see Hugo lounge around without a shirt.
Alita’s first body resembles that of, say, a 14-year-old girl. It’s clearly mechanical and robot-like—less realistic than the body of a Barbie doll. Still, we do see her “naked,” as it were—though apart from some feminine curves, there’s nothing else here that one might consider “anatomically correct.” Her second body—very metallic and in shades of blue and purple—is even less “human”-looking than her old one, but it is curvier. We’re told that the body automatically conforms to Alita’s own internal impressions of herself: Ido’s nurse tells him that Alita was clearly older than they thought.
We see what initially appears to be a human woman in fishnet stockings and a trench coat in a dark alley. (She is later revealed as a cyborg.) We also see another human woman in a man’s bed wearing underwear, lingerie-like stockings and a garter belt, though her shirt is less revealing. The intimacy of the scene perhaps implies that the two are lovers, though we never see anything else that would confirm that relationship.
The violence in Alita: Battle Angel is unremitting and oddly brutal—but a bit hard to parse in this space, given that most of the carnage is perpetrated on cyborgs (who seem to feel significantly less pain than we would if we were dismembered). Even the “blood” we see tends to be blue or green. And yet, these characters—most of whom have faces that are far more realistic than Alita’s anime-inspired visage—still feel quite human.
We do see one actual human sliced in half, though the scene is brief and in shadow. (No blood or gore is shown.) A couple of guys get stabbed, and their wounds are clearly terminal. Another human is apparently “disassembled.” Only the victim’s brain, eyes and hands are deemed worthy of keeping, apparently to be reassembled as a cyborg down the road.
Cyborgs are sliced up as a matter of course. In fact, some criminals go around “jacking” cyborgs, stripping them of parts like thieves might do with cars. Arms and legs (and sometimes accompanying built-in weapons) get hacked off and go flying. At other times, most of their bodies are diced up like ham. One scene features a violently dismembered cyborg with just one arm attached—still doing its best to fight. (“Just a flesh wound,” I half expected the victim to say.)
Tearing off a cyborg’s head is a pretty effective way to actually kill one, and we see at least one such head get pinned to a wall after it’s separated from its body. Another head is removed from its useless husk, but the thing is kept alive via a strange blood infusion. Other heads roll about at times. Part of a cyborg’s face is sliced off from the rest of it—which causes its owner a great deal of exasperation (but seemingly very little pain).
Motorball is a particularly bloody contest involving cyborgs. We see these man/machine hybrids race around the arena, crash, get sliced apart and, in one case, explode. In a more playground version of the sport (in which most of the participants seem to be human, except Alita), people get knocked to the ground and, in one case, sent flying head over heels.
Alita instigates a massive fight at a bar catering to hunter-warriors. We see limbs chopped off, bodies breaking tables and faces smashed in.
In flashback, we see what happened to Ido’s wheelchair-bound daughter (though her death takes place off-camera and is only suggested). In another flashback, we witness a massive battle where several people/cyborgs are clearly killed. Someone falls from a tremendous height, apparently to his death. A dog is apparently stepped on and killed. Alita dips her finger in blood and uses it as war paint. We see a human skeleton in an old spacecraft.
We hear rumors of a murderer on the loose in Iron City: He’s killed nine women so far, we’re told. And we see him attack one victim, mostly in the shadows, with something that looks a little like a huge scythe.
One f-bomb is dropped (which even some secular reviewers found a little off-putting), and we hear one use of it’s milder stand-in, “freaking.” We also hear an s-word and other profanities, including “b–ch,” “h—,” “d–n,” “pr–k” and “p-ss” and “crap.” Cyborgs are prone to call humans “meat bags” and the like.
Plenty of folks drink at a hunter-warrior bar. Ido sips wine with dinner. Someone pours a couple of glasses of whiskey.
We hear about tension between Iron City’s fully human residents and its cyborg citizens. Hugo’s friend, Tanji, has a serious problem with Hugo’s budding relationship with Alita, for instance, because she’s a cyborg.
Alita increasingly acts like a rebellious teen in some ways, rejecting Ido’s instructions to keep her safe. At one point, she complains to Hugo about Ido’s overprotective stance, telling him, “I’m just tired of it. He just wants me to be his perfect little girl.” Hugo encourages her rebellious attitude, saying, “So you gonna live by his rules or yours?”
[Spoiler Warning] Lots of people/cyborgs lie or keep secrets here. But perhaps the most jarring among them is the one that Hugo keeps. He’s part of an underground “jacking” crew that attacks cyborgs and strips them of useful motorized parts. Though he insists that he’s never killed anyone, it’s clearly a troubling occupation when your girlfriend is, y’know, a cyborg.
Alita: Battle Angel is visually spectacular, often ridiculous and sometimes kinda fun. Based on a 1990 manga series called Gunnm written by Yukito Kishiro, the film offers a dizzying, if overly long, scamper through a well-realized dystopia. A passion project of Titanic/Avatar impresario James Cameron (who co-wrote the screenplay), Alita was directed by Sin City’s Robert Rodriguez and features no fewer than three Oscar winners: Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali.
Alas, the completely CGI-rendered star, Alita (voiced by Rosa Salazar), with her anime eyes and all-too-showy skin pores, lands squarely in uncanny valley for some, giving the film a rather off-putting heroine at its core.
But Alita’s not the only off-putting element here.
The movie’s violence is at times laughably extreme, with some of the main players trying to do double-duty as relatable characters and tomatoes from late-night knife infomercials. (“It slices! It dices! It hacks off heads!”) Again, the fact that most of this violence is perpetrated on not-fully-human characters may mitigate it a bit; but the sheer volume of this flick’s carnage surely desensitizes us.
In one intense Motorball sequence, the sport’s over-the-top announcer neatly explains the movie title: “She’s got the face of an angel but a body built for battle!” But everyone in the audience—both those at the arena and those in the theater—knows that body could be hacked apart at any time. And whatever else the movie has going for it, that seems like an issue.
Focus on the Family has also decided to go to battle for those whom some consider disposable. We can’t stand by in the presence of evil. Consider talking to your family about the value of life and joining us in this fight.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.