It’ll only take one scene for Latinas to relate to and grasp the makeup of Alita: Battle Angel’s titular character and it occurs in the midst of a vicious pickup game. Alita, who has come to play Motorball (think roller derby but with futuristic technology and the perils of death) with her peers has up until this point had a wide-eyed and wonderstruck impression of the game. It’s fast, brutal, and the professional fighters in the game and her glimpses it from a TV have drawn her towards it because it features cyborgs just like her. She’s intrigued, even mystified by the game until she finds herself playing it and being brutally smacked to the pavement by a male opponent who makes jokes about her status as a cyborg. Knocked down but not broken, Alita brushes off the efforts of another male character to help her to feet. She fixes her eyes on the bully that struck her and clammers to her feet. Much like Latinas striving to knock down the barricades of today that continue to try to restrain them, Alita has determined that she will win the game. Her glare reminds us it might be an austere battle, but she will no doubt quash any beliefs her tormentor had that she’d never be able to do so.
In the midst of a film derived from Japanese manga and expected by critics to fall into Westernized tropes, Mexican-American director Robert Rodriguez takes his appreciation for the overlooked Latina character and projects it on screen.
CREDIT: Alita: Battle Angel / 20th Century Fox
Of course, Alita (played by Peruvian-American actress Rosa Salazar) might not be blatantly Latina in her depiction but there’s no denying that the film’s proudly Latino director does his best to invoke Latinidad in this film where he can. Beyond having a main character who is depicted by a Latina, the film is occupied with Latinx faces, veteran and new. Throughout the film we’re introduced to Eiza González and Michelle Rodriguez, even Dominican newcomer Jorge Lendeborg Jr. of Bumblebee takes on a relevant role. What’s more, there’s the setting. Rodriguez’s latest film takes place in 2563, a little over 500 years from now in the ramshackle streets of Iron City. The city, depicted as a sort of steampunk barrio where Spanish-language signs and buildings ostensibly plucked from the streets of Latin American countries abound, is shadowed by the floating fortress of rich and powerful Zalem and starts in the heart of a garbage heap.
Benevolent cyber-surgeon Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) combs through scraps of the junkyard at the top of the film and soon comes across the head and torso of a discarded cyborg. When he takes it home, he gives it a new shell of his own making and cares for it. When the cyborg finally comes to life and looks to him for answers about her identity and name, he decides she will be Alita, his deceased daughter’s namesake. Initially, Alita navigates her new world with the wide-eyed wonder of your average female cyborg teen protagonist hit with amnesia. She befriends a puppy, develops a crush on an enigmatic boy, takes up a sport. But soon enough we learn Alita isn’t up for the task of being your average cyborg girl next door. As it turns out, she’s a deadly soldier, well-versed in the likely extinct martial art of “Panzer Kunst.”
Soon enough we watch as our main character juggles battling Machiavellian characters, pining over her crush, and attempting to win a deadly sports competition.
Unknowingly tapping into the teen girl desire that once fueled franchise’s like Twilight and Hunger Games, Alita: Battle Angel is the long-awaited answer to our Latina prayers.
CREDIT: Alita: Battle Angel / 20th Century Fox
Well before the film hit theaters, critics cynically attempted to predict Alita’s downfall based on the failings of previous manga adaptations. It makes sense. Hollywood’s lack of success in translating manga to a live-action film has a long and whitewashed history. Critics threw the book at Speed Racer in 2008 when trailers unveiled its primarily white cast and clutched their pearls a year later when Dragon Ball Evolution committed similar crimes. Two years ago, Ghost In The Shell enthusiasts were sorely let down by the film’s catastrophic adaptation, which was marred both by the casting of Scarlett Johansson and the whitewashing of the original manga’s beloved Hong Kong-inspired setting.
But James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez take the material of Yukito Kishiro’s manga series and brings it to life with an ease that will make U.S. manga fanatics wonder what took so long. For Latino sci-fi fans and YA fanatics, there’s no denying this comes from the film’s ability to cater to (whether this is purposeful remains to be proved) one of the industry’s most underserved yet gainful audiences: Latina teens. Much like critic assessments of YA films starring female teen leads, there’s an obvious reason Alita: Battle Angel hasn’t totally received the acclaim it’s cast and storyline largely deserves. The movie isn’t meant for the popular film critic demographic so often enamored by the young and naive sexy female tropes found in films like The Fifth Element and Tron: Legacy. While 11 years have passed since Twilight first made its box office debut and sparked a bout of female-focused franchises as well as film critic rage and yet, according to USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the industry’s most prevalent movie reviewers are men. Perhaps, the film would have fared better amongst these reviewers had Alita been born Been Sexy Yesterday. In the meantime, the young female cyborg who quite literally kicks ass and takes names throughout the film will undoubtedly find a cult following in the hearts of Latinas (YA level and beyond) who have long pined for a teen heroine to represent them.