Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez's big-screen adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga series Gunnm, opened to middling reviews and solid but unspectacular box office. The film, a long-time passion project of James Cameron (who is credited as producer and co-writer of the screenplay), is a strange mishmash of ideas. While the effects are truly dazzling — would we expect any less from Rodriguez and Cameron? — the story is muddled and too derivative to keep audiences hooked beyond the gorgeous visuals. Despite the very of-the-minute effects, the plot and characters feel like throwbacks to '90s action movies, hastily sketched and more excuses for set-pieces than the solid foundations of an intended franchise.
It’s a shame because the protagonist, the cyborg Alita, is genuinely fascinating. Played with infectious joy and endless charm by Rosa Salazar, Alita brings much-needed enthusiasm to a story that's sorely lacking it from most of the cast (has Christoph Waltz ever looked this bored before?). The story is too reliant on threadbare tropes and oft-repeated plot beats to tell her narrative, and nowhere is this more evident than in the designated love interest, Hugo.
Warning: spoilers for Alita: Battle Angel within.
Hugo, played by Keean Johnson, is a run-of-the-mill kid who dreams of saving enough money to escape the junkyard Iron City and make his way up to Zalem, the realm of Earth's super privileged following a cataclysmic war known only as "The Fall". He and Alita quickly strike up a friendship and in no time at all, it turns romantic, even as Hugo has been tasked with manipulating her into giving herself over to Vector, a small-time crook who has promised him passage to Zalem. So far, so typical of this sort of narrative. Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, but is bound to a secret that could destroy their lives. It’s not especially inspiring but it’s a tried and proven formula that can work in the right hands. The problem with this dynamic in Alita: Battle Angel is that Alita is far too good for this aggressively mediocre love interest. He’s dull, deceitful, and completely out of her league. Even if she wasn’t an incomprehensibly complex cyborg made from advanced alien technology, she’d still be too good for Hugo. In one scene, she offers him her heart. Literally. She pulls her heart out of her chest and offers it to him to sell on the black market so he can achieve his dream of going to Zalem. He at least has the decency to turn down this offer, but the entire moment is played as the ultimate romantic gesture, one the film never truly earns. By the time the movie reaches its emotional climax, you’re too busy wondering what the hell Alita sees in Hugo to feel moved by it.
Alita: Battle Angel isn’t alone in this phenomenon. Aquaman, a far superior movie, is at its weakest when it tries to play up the Arthur/Mera dynamic as one of a strong, capable and authoritative woman who must constantly build up the ego of the man. It’s not a narrative that is directly comparable to Alita: Battle Angel, granted. Aquaman is more concerned with an old-school hero’s journey than the inevitable romance, but it’s still a story where the most powerful and qualified person for the gig has to put those factors aside to reassure the guy and audiences who the real hero is. Alita may be the undisputed hero of her own story, but she still has to waste valuable time on building up an utterly uninteresting male sidekick as her equal.
We’re still seriously lagging behind in the leading heroines stakes when it comes to major blockbuster cinema. Men are more likely to be front and center as the heroes with a pretty female love interest (who is also usually white, thin, and exclusively cisgender). Audiences are all too used to that tired dynamic where the female love interest is presented as a prize to be won once the hero has completed the real job of fighting the bad guy and saving the world. There’s an argument to be made that this gender flip is simply a case of balancing the scales. Finally, women get to be awesome and have a boring handsome love interest to make out with at the end of their battles! Let’s see how the guys like it for a change! If that’s your thing then more power to you, but the dynamic created by this is still reinforcing all the problems had with the original mold. The stakes remain wildly unbalanced and the heroines’ strength and capabilities diminished by the need to force a romance with an undeserving guy.
Alita’s romance with Hugo is further complicated by one of the sci-fi genre’s most unsettling tropes. Alita is essentially born on the day she meets Hugo, having been put back together by the scientist who found her. Hugo is the first guy she meets after him and that seems to be the primary reason the narrative wants to force them together. He teaches her how to play motorball, the sport of Iron City, he introduces her to chocolate, and is shown the “real world” by him. So of course she falls for him. The Born Sexy Yesterday trope is defined by how a newly created typically female life-form, one of extreme intelligence and physicality but no understanding of common place things, latches onto the first ordinary man they see. She's hot and powerful but utterly innocent, and it's up to the mediocre man to show her how the world works. His superiority is emphasized by his knowledge of the world he lives in, knowledge most people have, and that is what impresses the woman, even though she’s hyper-intelligent and could probably crush his head like a beer can. Leeloo from The Fifth Element is a good example of this trope, and Alita dishearteningly fits it far too well, right down to how she is willing to literally give this undeserving fool her heart.
The most insidious elements of the mediocre male love interest tropes and forced unbalanced romantic subplots can be fixed through one simple trick: Just write better female characters and don’t write in a love story unless you truly care about making it a worthwhile one. Once you stop seeing women’s worth in their status as a prize to be won, the situation will improve immensely. As for Alita? Well, at least she didn’t really give Hugo her heart. He certainly didn’t deserve it.