Home > Reviews > ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – Tom Holkenborg

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL – Tom Holkenborg

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Hollywood’s increasing interest in bringing new versions of Japanese anime titles to an American audience continues with the release of Alita: Battle Angel, adapted from the eponymous 1990s comic book series by Yukito Kishiro. The film was written and produced by James Cameron, who originally intended to direct the project himself when it was first announced in 2003, but after sitting in ‘development hell’ for well over a decade, it was eventually helmed by Robert Rodriguez. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future and focuses on Alita (Rosa Salazar), a female cyborg who has lost all her memories and is found in a junkyard by cybernetics doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Ido rebuilds Alita and takes care of her like she is his daughter; eventually, however, Alita discovers that she has immense strength and fighting skills, which leads to her becoming a bounty hunter, and eventually learning more about her past. The film co-stars Oscar winners Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, and has been a surprisingly popular critical and commercial success, overcoming the film’s misleading marketing that entirely omits the significant sports movie plot, as well as its potential for trips to the ‘uncanny valley’ in terms of Alita’s look and design.

The music for Alita: Battle Angel is by Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, and is the latest in a series of high concept action/fantasy/sci-fi movies scored by the Dutchman that includes Divergent, Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, Batman v Superman, The Dark Tower, Tomb Raider, and Mortal Engines. As most people know by now, I have been somewhat vocal in the past with my criticism of Holkenborg’s compositional prowess – or lack thereof. When he first broke through into the film music mainstream with Mad Max in 2015 I felt that the plaudits he received for it were entirely unwarranted, and my feelings continued in a similar vein throughout much of his early career. However, following the score for The Dark Tower in 2017 – and with the notable exception of the execrable Tomb Raider – things have started to change. Don’t tell anyone, but he’s getting better. The Dark Tower contained a tremendous main title theme which showcased his discovery that orchestras have brass sections, while Mortal Engines contained a nine minute piece – the “London Suite in C Major” – which was the best thing he had written in his career to that point. Alita continues this upward trend, and for me now stands at the pinnacle in terms of his career achievements to date. While some will undoubtedly see this as faint praise, I do mean this sincerely. Contrary to popular belief, I do want every score to be good, and that includes ones by those I had previously criticized.

Alita: Battle Angel uses a big orchestra, a big choir, and a lot of electronic and synthesized sound design to capture the futuristic setting of the film. There is one recurring main theme that represents Alita herself – more on that later – but what’s most impressive about this score is the fact that the depth and scope of the orchestrations is noticeably superior than anything Holkenborg has done before. Of course, it helps that Holkenborg is now working with Conrad Pope, and when you have a conductor and orchestrator of his immense skill and experience by your side, it’s difficult for the score not to sound good. However, I don’t want to be uncharitable, and will give Holkenborg the benefit of the doubt and say that it is his personal development as a composer that has given birth to this new, richer sound, and that having Pope around as a guide and a mentor has clearly served him well. The bottom line is that, if the music works, then it doesn’t necessarily matter who wrote what – and Alita works.

The main theme for Alita is a four-note motif that weaves its way through the entire score, changing and adapting to her circumstances and emotions at any given moment. It first appears in the opening cue, “Discovery,” emerging from out of a bed of dark and brooding synths and moody strings on low but powerful brass, accompanied by warlike drums and a softly cooing choir. As the score progresses the theme receives numerous prominent statements. In “I Don’t Even Know My Own Name” it is curious, almost childlike, performed with icy but appealing celesta textures, accompanied by a string wash and pretty woodwinds. In “The Warrior Within” it is embedded deep within a powerful action sequence, regularly emerging with heraldic prowess. In “Unlocking the Past” it has a slightly shady tone, accompanied by moodily abstract electronic tones. In “Grewishka’s Revenge” it is forceful and super-kinetic, again forming part of a significant action sequence. The statements in “Broken Doll” are revelatory, expressive, andheroic, as Alita uncovers more about her past. Both “I’d Give You My Heart” and “What Did You Do?” feature the theme on strings, but with different emotional intent – the former is appealing, dreamy, cathartic, while the latter is more bittersweet, with a heavier emotional core.

Perhaps my favorite statements of Alita’s theme come in two of the score’s conclusive cues. Firstly, “In the Clouds” showcases it at its most emotionally resonant, as yet another aggressive action sequence eventually gives way to some notably powerful cello writing. Finally, in “Raising the Sword,” the enormous choral forces and the resounding brass calls give the theme a stirring, sweeping feel that is hugely effective. It may be the height of obviousness to say this to long-time film music aficionados, but this is really the first time that a Holkenborg theme has shown this level of depth and emotional range, or this much instrumental variance; his previous thematic ideas tended to be somewhat one-note and emotionally static, so it’s nice to finally hear him stretch his wings somewhat here. There’s still a notable lack of prominent secondary ideas – none of the supporting characters or concepts appear to have any specific musical identity – but… baby steps. This is thrilling progress, and one which bodes well for the dramatic intensity of future projects.

The rest of the score tends to be either quiet and moody, or bold and action-packed, depending on the scene in question, and here again Holkenborg has shown a much clearer and more wide-ranging orchestral palette. Whereas scores like Mad Max simply battered you over the head with relentless string ostinatos and endlessly thunderous drums, Alita: Battle Angel has much more nuance, much more variance in the rhythmic ideas, and a much wider instrumental base, and this is something worth acknowledging.

There are a number of specific cues which really stand out as being something special. “Double Identity” and “The Warrior Within” are both excellent action sequences; in the former, Holkenborg initially uses a great deal of industrial sound design underneath an array of heavily manipulated string and brass phrases, but as it develops it becomes a more intensely rhythmic piece, with notably excellent use of woodwinds, and clever use of the orchestra as the rhythmic ideas moves around it. The latter features a number of wonderfully flamboyant flourishes in the string writing – listen especially to the sequence that begins at 1:59 – while the trademark Holkenborg fluttering percussion snaps that emerge in the second half of the cue sound excellent, especially when set against powerful statements of the main Alita theme on brass.

“A Dark Past” features some lonely-sounding brass that has a distinctly Jerry Goldsmith-esque feel to it. An electric guitar works its way into the sound palette for “In Time You’ll Remember”. “Nova’s Orders” has a great passage for strings doubled with bassoons that comes across as insidious and snake-like, a perfect depiction of the looming menace that seeks to threaten Alita’s new life. “Jackers Mission” has a standalone three-note brass motif that gets passed around the section, and comes across as a menacing herald for the cyborg bounty hunters with whom Alita aligns herself.

The big finale of “Grewishka’s Revenge” is another action music highlight, an aggressive, growling, almost animalistic piece in which explosions of dissonance lead into a rhythmic conclusion featuring unusual percussion ideas and frantic brass flurries. Conversely, the woodwind textures in “With Me” have an almost Horner-esque flavor to them, especially when they combine with lush strings and noble horns. The whole thing is pretty, effervescent, and warmly appealing, and the introduction of gentle piano tones make the conclusion genuinely lovely. The score’s overall finale, “Motorball,” is a bit of an outlier when compared to the rest of the score, but it may appeal to Holkenborg’s established admirers more than anything else, being a belligerent, dance-like piece of harsh modern electronica. It stands out like a sore thumb over the rest of the score, but it certainly adds a dash of rock and roll to the film’s surprisingly frequent scenes in which Alita takes part in roller-hockey style action sports.

I have to admit that the overall high quality of Alita: Battle Angel took me aback, but I’m always happy to be surprised when a composer does something significantly superior to his previous work. Holkenborg’s development as a composer, through The Dark Tower and Mortal Engines, and now through this score, is fascinating to watch, and I’m very interested to see whether the upward trajectory continues through his upcoming efforts (he’s scheduled to score the Sonic the Hedgehog movie later in 2019). There are still areas of his work that feel inferior compared to his peers – the prominence of secondary themes being the biggest one – but, with that one caveat in mind, Alita: Battle Angel has turned out to be one of 2019’s most unexpectedly pleasant surprises. The main theme is good, the action music is enjoyably hyperactive, and the instrumental richness is truly impressive.

Buy the Alita: Battle Angel soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Discovery (3:13)
  • I Don’t Even Know My Own Name (5:44)
  • What’s Your Dream? (3:16)
  • Double Identity (1:54)
  • The Warrior Within (3:31)
  • A Dark Past (1:29)
  • In Time You’ll Remember (0:58)
  • Nova’s Orders (2:48)
  • Jackers Mission (2:36)
  • Unlocking The Past (3:52)
  • Whose Body Is This? (2:06)
  • Grewishka’s Revenge (4:23)
  • Broken Doll (2:34)
  • With Me (5:41)
  • I’d Give You My Heart (3:07)
  • You Just Lost A Puppet (2:30)
  • What Did You Do? (3:41)
  • In The Clouds (3:56)
  • Raising The Sword (1:43)
  • Motorball (5:14)

Running Time: 64 minutes 28 seconds

Milan Records (2019)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Conducted by Conrad Pope. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope, Jonathan Beard, Edward Trybek and Henri Wilkinson. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Peter Myles. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg and Stefan Karrer.

  1. Marco Ludema
    March 21, 2019 at 10:26 am

    The uphill trend of quality of Junkie XL helps to boost up my hopes for the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie score.

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