An angel falls from Heaven and is reborn in Hell in 2019's Alita: Battle Angel. What a nice surprise to find Milton references in this movie which I was already eager to see because I like Robert Rodriguez and anime. There are some superficial problems I had with the screenplay but for the most part I was delighted to experience this film; for its intriguing thematic layering, the beauty of its effects and design, its perfect casting, and its action sequences. Gods, it was so nice to see a new movie that knew how to do action sequences.
With a movie so dominated by cgi, it's easy for the action sequences to lose a sense of reality to the point of getting an intangible feeling. Computer generated action sequences can become something like watching clouds float into each other. One of the ways to counteract this, which Rodriguez does very well, is to create a good narrative through visuals. Good storyboarding is important for this--you need to take the audience from one clear visual idea to another without letting things turn into a mess of moving shapes. So it's very effective to have a moment like the one where Alita (Rosa Salazar), racing down a track with the camera following her, abruptly stops to grab a horizontal pole--the camera also stops--and uses her momentum to swing around into a kick. The crucial part of this is the camera moving and stopping with her--it keeps us in her perspective and helps us to stay emotionally connected to what she's doing.
A more controversial decision that also assists in this vein is her huge eyes. Your mileage may vary but I found them captivating. Everything she did and said was weirdly interesting because I was drawn in by those eyes. She has amnesia so she's in a sense a newborn, the eyes contributing to this childlike quality--we're supposed to be instinctively drawn to large eyes because it helps us feel more protective of human babies and damned if it didn't work like gangbusters here. Rodriguez and screenwriter James Cameron definitely seem to be tapping into their paternal instincts and Christoph Waltz as Dyson Ido is excellent as Alita's surrogate father. Unlike Planet Terror, there's little or no conscious emphasis on the sexuality of the female protagonist--judging from what we can see of the two bodies she has during the film, her sex and gender are determined entirely by her brain. Her body even changes shape to adjust to her "sub-conscious self-image" at one point. To quote from Paradise Lost:
For Spirits, when they please,
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tried or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but, in what shape they choose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfil.
The movie has one direct reference to John Milton's famous 1667 poem--one of the villains, Vector (Mahershala Ali), has the famous line, saying he'd rather, "reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." There's some irony in this as he's clearly not reigning but acting merely as a puppet for the God-like character Nova (an uncredited Edward Norton). Just as arguably Satan is in Paradise Lost, though Satan seems a little more aware of it, even if his efforts to fight this state of affairs are met with negligible success.
If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which ofttimes may succeed so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.
Alita herself becomes a more accurate analogy for Satan, being explicitly referred to as an Angel who fell from Heaven after an epic battle with Heaven's supreme powers and who now fights against its institutions. She's also, of course, analogous to Eve in Paradise Lost (the same Eve from the bible) and it's telling one of the first things Dyson does when she awakens in his home is to offer her fruit. As she tells one big ugly cyborg brute (Jackie Earle Haley), she refuses to ignore the presence of evil and pledges to fight it, which implies a knowledge of good and evil, the ability to discern and enforce moral truth, a right Satan rebukes god for reserving to himself.
Can it be sin to know?
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance? Is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Their ruin! hence I will excite their minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with design
To keep them low, whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with Gods
I haven't read Gunnm, the manga on which this film is based, and it's been a long time since I watched the anime, but the concept of a floating technological heaven where the wealthy dwell over a slum-like Hell, in which the labour and even flesh of common people is exploited, is a premise found in a lot of anime and manga--some might remember it from Final Fantasy VII, one might even trace it to Kurosawa's 1963 film High and Low. As is often the case, there's a paradox inherent in the philosophy behind the story as one might argue there is in Paradise Lost--Milton's intentions on the matter having been a famous topic of debate for centuries. Alita fights against a system where the powerful exploit the less powerful but in order to assert herself and her will she must make use of her own surpassing power. Every step she takes to fight against a hierarchy proves the fundamental need for hierarchy.
There's also the subject of vanity--Alita mocks a rival Hunter Warrior--bounty hunters in the slum undercity--for spending all his money on his beautiful face and yet throughout the film Alita's own beauty, intentionally crafted by cgi, is an undeniably essential aspect of the film. In at least one action sequence, there's a moment of tension where it looks like Alita's face might be scratched off. Maybe one of the virtues of Alita's childlike personality is that she lacks the ability to see these contradictions in her own nature, otherwise they might be psychologically debilitating. And that may be part of the film's point.
It's too bad the disarray at Fox and the petty political situation in Hollywood may have undercut this film's success, but it's worth noting that in spite of these things it's still been a financial success, especially overseas. The end of the film teases a sequel which I'm not sure it really needs. But I'd certainly be happy to see it.