Review by C.J. Bunce
Alita: Battle Angela could be just another space-age story. It’s full of cyborgs (we love’ em), but it’s not standard fare for frequent sci-fi movie buffs and sci-fi readers. Without the “distraction” of Robert Rodriguez’s special effects, you can really get to the heart of the movie’s story by going to the underlying source work it adapts, or in this case, its novelization, Alita: Battle Angel–The Official Novelization, by author Pat Cadigan, who also wrote last year’s Harley Quinn–Mad Love, reviewed here at borg. The film is an adaptation of the manga Battle Angel: Alita by Yukito Kishiro, a story about self-discovery and empowerment via a centuries-old human brain that finds its way into the cybernetic body of what looks like a teen girl. The film changes enough from the manga, incorporating several new characters and conflicts, that the novelization and film stand apart from Kishiro’s manga. So how does the new story fare?
Above all, the biggest surprise is that Alita: Battle Angel–The Official Novelization is in every way a young adult novel, based on its protagonist, story structure, and the author’s writing style. In fact the film may have missed a niche audience–as the studio targeted adult sci-fi buffs instead of fans of stories like the Divergent series, Twilight, The Maze Runner series, City of Ember, and Ender‘s Game. Even more on-point, Alita: Battle Angel follows the same emotional highs and lows of The Hunger Games. Both The Hunger Games and Alita: Battle Angel are teen heroine updates to both Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1987), but like some of the best science fiction they are also remakes of the oldest of them all, Frankenstein, and its descendant Pinocchio. Blend these four popular stories together and you can understand why James Cameron prepared 600 pages of development material for the Alita project he would ultimately produce into the film.
Pat Cadigan′s storytelling is a mirror of the writing style and pacing of The Hunger Games’ novel writer, Suzanne Collins. In a significant way, Alita: Battle Angel is a teen romance, a romance between Alita–an amnesiac cyborg who is primarily robotic but has a human brain–and her newfound human boyfriend Hugo. Hugo is a street kid who helps her learn who she wants to be and how to survive on the streets of a futuristic Earth where everyone who isn’t a cyborg is mugging cyborgs to steal their parts and swap them for cash. As with Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, Alita and Hugo fall in love as they help each other and work together when faced with an onslaught of ever-increasing impediments to their survival. And yes, this is another superheroine with a problem like the heroine in the new Captain Marvel movie.
Secondary to the romance is what makes Alita: Battle Angel a continuation of Rollerball, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games (and maybe even Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire): this is a full-fledged “future sports” story. Much of the novel that is not about Alita and Hugh and Hugh’s father figure Dr. Ido is worldbuilding, and most of that is about the influence on the sport Motorball on humans and cyborgs of the future, including descriptive rules (actually there aren’t many rules), montage training, and a climactic action/battle sequence.
As for the cyborg elements, readers won’t find much new compared to previous cyborg sci-fi. Any modernization of that component will need to be followed in the screen version of the story. Cadigan’s descriptions create images of dystopian Earth from the Terminator series and the dismal and grim prospects for even the survivors like those found in the Mad Max series.
Chalk up this story as having one of the highest numbers of villains in a story. In Alita’s world, everyone in the future is a bad guy. The biggest failing of the tale, most likely from the movie creators than from the author of the novelization, is that Alita–and readers–never learn the details of Alita’s past. Learning that detail will no doubt depend on the success of the film and possibility of a sequel.
Alita: Battle Angel is a surprise find that librarians looking for an action-heavy story for teen readers may want to check out. It’s also an obvious choice for fans of the film and sci-fi movie tie-ins–a straightforward plot with lots of cyborgs and a few twists along the way. Pick up a copy of Alita: Battle Angel–The Official Novelization in a cool foil hardcover edition now here at Amazon.