Five Betrayals of Alita’s Character in the Battle Angle Movie

A couple of years ago I wrote a breakdown on the failures of the movie Alita: Battle Angle to properly translate the villain of Yukito Kishiro’s manga (Gunmn in the Japanese, Battle Angle Alita for us English speakers). For a while I considered doing a full breakdown of that adaptation and all the many ways it failed but ultimately I didn’t want to spend any more money or time on a film that fell so short of what I wanted. So I forgot about it. 

Then they decided to rerelease the film in theaters.  

This could be a last ditch attempt to salvage the theater industry by pumping old films back into them. I know many fans of Alita hope this will lead to a sequel. What these people need to understand is that, even if they get a sequel, they will not get what they want. The Alita film does not understand the characters of its source material and it cannot develop them effectively. While Alita and her friends were not horribly betrayed like Nova was I don’t really believe James Cameron can effectively develop the story – this is the man who wrote Avatar after all. Beyond that, I don’t think he wants to develop the story of Alita, I think he is using the visuals Kishiro developed to try and tell his own story that, as I said before, is trite and overplayed these days. If my breakdown of Nova didn’t convince you of that, or you just don’t want to go back and read that post, here are five ways Cameron betrayed the heroine’s character in his film. 

  1. Movie Alita fails to learn. While manga Alita is not a genius like Nova or Ido she does learn and grow from the things she experiences. In fact she quickly picks up on Nova’s headgames and does her best to work around them. She rarely succeeds, as Nova is a truly formidable villain, but she does learn and grow. Movie Alita doesn’t seem to learn her enemies’ gambits at all. In fact, even though Vector’s deal to send Hugo to Zalem proves to be a flat out lie she immediately turns around and trusts that Motorball champions get to go to Zalem, even though this promise ultimately comes from the exact same place. Zalem itself. It makes her look incredibly stupid and shows that she’s not at all the same character as Kishiro’s heroine. 
  2. Movie Alita shows no compassion to her enemies. From the end of her encounter with Makaku, manga Alita showed the ability to form an understanding of her enemies and shows a deep sense of compassion for their circumstances and how they reached the place they did. She still defeats them but rarely does she fail to acknowledge their humanity. There are a few instances where Alita completely dismisses her opponents and just fights them senselessly and when she does it’s a moral failing on her part. Instead it is her acts of compassion, not her acts of violence, that have the biggest impact on the world and ultimately defeat Nova. Movie Alita never shows this connection with or sympathy for the evil people she must dispatch. She is far less humane than she should be. Worse, she executes Vector in cold blood when he poses no threat to her at all. This deprives Vector of his opportunity to grow and transform into a major pillar of society future as Kishiro’s Vector did. In spite of the many failures of the movie elsewhere Vector’s murder is what ultimately convinced me Cameron didn’t understand Alita. 
  3. Movie Alita cannot face the lessons of Motorball. The unfortunate truth is, by transforming Motorball into just another obstacle between Alita and Nova, the movie abandons the lesson Motorball teaches manga Alita. In the manga Motorball was one of the lowest points in Alita’s life. After losing Hugo she dives into Motorball so she can find a way to indulge her violent impulses without running into trouble. Except ultimately Alita does run in to trouble, and leaves the sport after a resounding defeat at the hands of Emperor Jashugan. She’s warned by her former teammate that she’s bad for the sport because she never came there for Motorball but just because she was seeking selfish fulfillment and that makes it impossible for her to be a true Motorball player. This rebuke was a decisive moment where Alita began to overcome her selfish impulses. Add in the low likelihood that Jashugan will decisively defeat Alita if he’s a barrier between movie Alita and Nova, thus depriving her of an insurmountable obstacle, there’s little chance movie Alita will get any of the value Motorball brought to manga Alita. 
  4. Movie Alita will never face her karma. In the manga Alita’s intervention between Zapan and Hugo was fundamentally unjust. Manga Zapan went looking for the spine thief by posing as a victim and trying to capture Hugo when Hugo tried to steal his spine. Manga Hugo never changed direction and thus earned his comeuppance from Zapan. Tearing Zapan’s face off was a grave injustice driven by Alita’s selfish blindness to Hugo’s evil actions. When Zapan and Alita fought again later on Alita was forced to face all the destruction her selfishness caused to both Zapan and her community. By allowing movie Hugo to turn over a new leaf and turning Zapan into a disgruntled rival who hunted Hugo as a sideways way to get back at Alita, the movie incarnation of Alita will not grow through facing the consequences of a significant selfish action. 

WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE BATTLE ANGLE ALITA MANGA 

  1. Movie Alita cannot accept the Secret of Zalem. It’s a significant manga plot point that Zalem removes the biological brain of its citizens and replaces them with solid state computer chips. Zalemites are not told this substitution takes place. In typical cyberpunk fashion, once they learn this fact most Zalemites suffer mental breakdowns as they grapple with their sense of self and what this substitution might mean about what they are. Many Earth bound humans are also repulsed by this fact. There are three characters utterly unphased by this revelation – Lou (unimportant to this analysis), Alita and Nova. Nova’s sense of ego overrides any sense of humanity in the traditional sense, he’s far too monstrous to bother with the physical pieces that make up bodies, even his own, he’s lost in the intellectual challenges he wants to tackle. Conversely by the time Alita learns the secret of Zalem she’s developed such a sense of compassion for others that she treasures humanity no matter what physical parts make it up. Without the final secret of Zalem to bring out this part of her character Alita cannot reach the zenith of her character or show her ultimate contrast with her villain. And the hard reality is, movie Zalem does not use brain chips. Nova, Ido and the rest all have normal meat brains. How do I know this? Because we see Chiren after she’s been broken down for parts by Vector and her brain is clearly visible. Chiren is supposedly from Zalem. Thus brain chips are definitely off the table and with them the Secret of Zalem. 

SPOILERS END HERE 

Now I know, it’s possible to have two stories start in the same place and end in completely different places. Keep a hero the same and change the villain and you can still tell a compelling story, just with your hero growing in different and new ways. And I suppose that means an Alita sequel could be a decent film, even if it’s got nothing to do with Kishiro’s tale. But my core premise has and always will be, that Alita: Battle Angel should have been a retelling of Yukito Kishiro’s classic cyberpunk manga. Not Susan Collins’ dystopian YA novels. Not Cameron’s Avatar with cyborgs instead of blue people. But the latter two are closer to what we got. As far as I’m concerned Cameron can keep it. 

Desty Nova: A Villain Destroyed

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.