Review of Alita: Battle Angel

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This is a science-fiction action movie based on the 1990s Japanese manga series Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro. The film was released by 20th Century Fox in February 2019. It was directed by Robert Rodriguez, co-produced by James Cameron and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. Weta Digital created the special effects. Rosa Salazar stars as the cyborg Alita, Keean Johnson as Hugo, and Christoph Waltz as Dyson Ido. I notice this is on the ballot for the Dragon Award.

Iron City is a noisy, industrial dystopia after The Fall. It’s full of decaying tech, dangerous street gangs and bounty hunters stalking their prey. Above it floats the pristine sky city of Zalem where the rich and powerful live. A dismembered cyborg falls from the sky city into a trash heap in Iron City and is found by Dr. Dyson Ido. He attaches her head and torso to a body he previously built for his daughter, and calls her Alita. When she wakes, she has no memory of who she is. Alita makes a best friend in Hugo and starts to explore her capabilities, which seem to be very physical. She competes in Motorball against other cyborgs and does well. When corrupt forces in the city suddenly come after her, she finds she has high-level fighting skills. Can she save herself and her friends?

The most unusual feature of this film is the protagonist Alita, a CGI animated character created with the aid of motion capture, while most of the other actors seem to be live-action. Alita has huge eyes and first appears as just a head and torso, which is later attached to different bodies. Unlike early efforts at placing animated characters into live-action films, Alita fits in well and has fairly natural movement, though she’s still clearly animation. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead explores Iron City, presents Alita’s backstory through flashes of memory and introduces characters who are apparently emerging from her past. There’s plenty of action and fight-choreography, and an emotional climax when Hugo is at risk.

On the not so positive side, Alita’s character remains flat, regardless of emotional moments and pained facial expressions. This makes the sentiment seem forced. Clearly the film is aimed at an audience who is familiar with the manga, but if you’re not, the plot is confusing because the flashbacks aren’t enough to explain the full situation. There are some apparent cameos among the characters, which suggests the main purpose of this installment is to set up for sequels.

Two and a half stars.

Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and villain white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

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