The heroes stand in sharp contrast the casting of white, male actors as the sociopathic villains: the British actor and rapper Ed Skrein as Zapan and a whiter-than-white Edward Norton as Nova. By reversing the Manichean silver-screen scripts (white/good vs. brown/bad), Robert vitally reframes expectation and engagement of sci-fi storyworlds.
With Robert’s films, we know that there’s always more happening than meets the eye. It’s certainly the case that he’s flipped the mainstream business-as-usual with sci-fi film stories. Latinxs are not the exotic and ornamental; they are not the helpless and hapless. But there’s more that Robert does with Alita. He affirms. He empowers. He throws us existential conundrums.
This isn’t new for Robert. In all of his films he smuggles into the genres he uses (and abuses)—from Western and Mexploitation to Teen, Horror, Sci-Fi, even music videos—doppelgängers, existential crises, political critique, patriarchal corporatocracy, mestiza affirmation and empowerment, and much more. With Alita he smuggles into the mainstream imaginary the question of what makes us human in and around hybrid (Latinx) subjectivities that exist in a hemispheric Américas. He smuggles into the mainstream imaginary the deep affirmation of mestizo selves that resonates beyond the silver screen; they reverberate in our minds as allegories of the birth and rebirth of an empowered mestizas: it’s only once the body and mind meld that Alita comes to know her self—a warrior self informed by a 300-year-memory of her armed resistance to colonization.
It would be remis of me not to mention a couple of nit-picks before I wrap up this thought piece on Robert’s Latinx sci-fi world building. As some have, I’m not going to take issue with Alita’s second rebirth into a full-bosomed cyborg body; there’s nothing about the costuming, lighting, or lensing that raise those fanboy wish-fulfillment sexual fantasy flags. I do think Robert, the screenplay, and his casting crew slip hard when it comes to Nurse Gerhard; and, not because of the choice to cast a woman of color (African American actor, Idara Victor) in the role. It’s that by having her play the role of a silent, ready-to-please appendage to the white scientist, Dr. Ido, the film takes us twenty steps back in terms of representational politics. And while we might argue that costuming of and pig-tail hair design for Vietnamese American Lana Condor as Koyomi is the film’s way of gesturing toward its manga source material, this stands-out like the fetishistic, orientalist sore thumb that it is.
Finally, and this is more of a personal preference, Robert has skillfully used 2D cinematographic storytelling to excellent use in most of his films; he knows well how to lens and light a shot to guide our brains to create dynamic depths of field. His use of 3D doesn’t work here. It doesn’t distract like yesteryear’s 3D. It’s just that its constant presence of 3 depth planes assign importance simultaneously to objects and characters in the foreground, middle-ground, and background. This overloads our perception system, unnecessarily.
Robert Rodriguez’s Alita might not be exactly the Latinx Wakanda we’ve been waiting for. It is, however, a world building that powerfully reminds us that we can make thrilling sci-fi stories that include Latinxs as more than just ornament. In an interview, Robert told me that with his films he wants to pull us into his “fever dreams” (139). Alita is a fever-dream that proactively welcomes all—and Latinxs especially.