Alita: Battle Angel is a movie about cyborgs punching stuff and the nature of the human experience. The story is theoretically a direct, big screen adaptation of one of my top ten favorite manga of all time, Battle Angel Alita. It’s also a very mixed bag.
This is not a complete breakdown of the adaptation, what I thought was good and what I thought was bad, as that would be an undertaking and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. Visually the movie is pitch perfect, but storywise it runs into some deep, deep flaws, tossing aside many of the themes of the source material in order to produce a trite, overused, downtrodden vs oppressors narrative. Nowhere does that failure come through more clearly than in the character of Desty Nova (just Nova in the film). As Alita’s greatest antagonist, Nova was a cruel and capricious character in the manga, and to an extent the film presents him as such as well. But in his adaptation of the manga, James Cameron throws away the questions Nova was trying to tackle and reduces him to a cardboard cutout of a cartoon tyrant rather than presenting him as the dangerous philosophical and moral threat that he should have been.
You see Desty Nova, the manga character, was trying to develop a scientific theory of free will and destiny. To do this, he would find people and offer to help them do anything they desired – unfettered free will – and then observe what happened to them, and whether they could overcome their circumstances – their destiny. In this process Nova was entirely amoral – he was as likely to assist a vicious serial killer like Makaku as a caring brother and conscientious sportsman like Jashugan, and he didn’t really care if he had to do things others might consider amoral to forward his goals. Eventually Nova would become more sadistic and arbitrary in his actions – Makaku and Jashugan seem to have been early and comparatively benign experiments – and he never hesitated to leverage his technical expertise to smooth his way and help himself survive the ever growing horde of people who wanted him dead.
Through Nova’s experiments we get a glimpse at the idea that our own desires can destroy us. He never gives his subjects anything other than what they want, to the extent of his considerable ability. But they invariably wind up self destructing. Makaku gains a robust cyberbody that can survive almost any situation but, with his limited sense of self, he can only understand pain and suffering and only communicates with others through them. He raises trouble until Alita finally destroys him in a tragic act that he perceives as love – affection from the only person who has ever cared about him in any way. Jashugan loves his sister and his sport, but he devotes himself to mastering that sport so fully that he gets his brain remodeled to make him a better player, ultimately leading to his brain shutting down a few years later depriving Motorball of its greatest player and Shimura of her only family. Nova did things for both these men that made their burnouts bigger and more spectacular – but there’s no doubt that they would have wound up in the same place regardless.
But the important thing about Nova is that he was fascinated with free will. He helped his subjects do whatever they wanted, and in turn he did whatever he wanted to get them there. Controlling people was never a part of his character. And Nova was a genuinely curious scientist. He wanted to understand things and answer questions, he didn’t really care about his own status so long as he could satisfy his curiosity. And he loved flan.
The adaptation of his character is practically the exact opposite.
In Alita: Battle Angel Nova is a tyrant. He rules the city of Zalem and oversees a network of servants on the surface to ensure no one there challenges his position. He is capable of controlling the bodies of those servants, completely overriding their free will. And when confronted with Alita herself, the most fascinating experimental subject for Nova of the manga, the foundation of a dozen experiments into free will over the course of decades, movie Nova orders her execution without expressing the slightest shred of interest. Alita is not a way to try and satisfy his curiosity, Nova just wants the power source in her cyborg body so he can make his own position in Zalem secure.
Makaku (or a very similar character with an unpronounceable name in the film) is just a pawn that does Nova’s bidding, we don’t even know why he took up working with Nova in the first place. Jashugan’s part in the story hasn’t come in yet but we do see Nova manipulating the Factory master Vector in much the same way. When these character die it’s a nonevent. They had no meaning, nothing to say about themselves or the nature of Nova’s desires and ambitions. They’re just fuel for spectacle, and props that show Nova is Bad. Hollow shells, nothing more.
It’s disappointing to see something you love translated to a new medium badly. It’s worse to see something that was trying to say something profound boiled down to something trite. In the character of Nova, Alita: Battle Angel manages both.