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Alita: Battle Angel Review

February 14, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
7.5
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Alita: Battle Angel Review  

Directed By: Robert Rodriguez
Written By: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez; Based on the manga Battle Angel Alita/Gunnm created by Yukito Kishiro
Runtime: 122 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Rosa Salazar – Alita
Christoph Waltz – Dr. Dyson Ido
Keean Johnson – Hugo
Jennifer Connelly – Dr. Chiren
Mahershala Ali – Vector
Ed Skrein – Zapan
Jackie Earle Haley – Grewishka
Michelle Rodriguez – Gelda
Eiza Gonz├ílez – Nyssiana
Lana Condor – Koyomi
Casper Van Dien – Amok
Elle LaMont – Screwhead

After spending a near decade-and-a-half in development, the sci-fi action-adventure story, Alita: Battle Angel has finally made it to the screen. Originating as a Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro with the Japanese title Gunnm, the manga was eventually brought to the US and retitled as Battle Angel Alita. It also spawned a two-part OVA in Japan and eventually got the attention of superstar writer-director James Cameron. For years, James Cameron developed Alita was on of next potential projects. It seemingly languished in development purgatory for years before it finally made it to the screen, courtesy of Lightstorm Entertainment and 20th Century Fox. Director Robert Rodriguez took over the director’s chair from the ever-busy Cameron, working from Cameron’s initial script draft and notes to bring the final product to the screen.

Alita: Battle Angel is set hundreds of years into the future. The world has faced a cataclysmic upheaval called “the fall,” where it appears all of the habitable cities were destroyed in a destructive conflict. Now, there are only two cities left where humans can live: the last gleaming, utopia sky city called Zalem; and the dilapidated metropolis beneath it, Iron City. In the scrapyard where Zalem dumps its refuse into Iron City, one Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) scavenges for parts and discovers a junked cyborg whose human brain is still intact. Ido brings this cyborg back to his medical clinic to repair her and gives her a replacement cyborg chassis that he had originally built for his handicapped daughter. The girl awakens with no memory of who she is or where she come from. Feeling a kinship with the young girl cyborg, Dr. Ido takes her in and gives her the name Alita (Salazar).

Unfortunately, Iron City is a rather bleak existence. Most all the civilians are forced into servitude for Zalem’s factory on the ground and forced to make due with scraps. Meanwhile, Zalem allows no one from the ground to enter their city. Alita eventually meets and befriends a young scavenger and motorball gear head, Hugo (Johnson), and they clearly have more than a passing interest in each other. Eventually, Alita discovers that she has incredible combat and martial arts abilities and wants to learn more about her past. Ido basically plays the over-protective parent, not wanting her to get involved into his activities where he moonlights as a Hunter Warrior (bounty hunter) for Iron City. Hunter Warriors police the scumbag of the city, as vicious cyborgs prey on the weak and innocent. Eventually, Alita seeks to take up the cause and defend herself and Ido from a malevolent behemoth named Grewishka (Haley).

Another party who becomes aware of Alita’s existence and becomes determined to put her down is Vector; the crooked face of Iron City’s infrastructure and the top sports game in town, motorball. With the help of Ido’s ex-wife, Dr. Chiren (Connelly), they upgrade Grewishka in order to kill Alita by any means necessary.

Alita: Battle Angel is a fun, entertaining action romp. Robert Rodriguez, working from Cameron’s original script, does probably the best job any filmmaker has before in adapting a Japanese manga story to the screen. The world-building is there. The action and presentation are there, and the immersion is definitely there. The immersion of Iron City, it’s society, civilians and hierarchy makes it feel more like a real place. Coupled with topnotch visual effects by WETA and production design, and Alita does cinematic justice to Japanese anime and manga that’s never really been seen onscreen before.

Rosa Salazar definitely succeeds in an incredibly challenging role for a motion-capture heavy performance. Now, being perfectly honest, the effects work for Alita is a bit jarring at times. But Salazar’s performance and emotion really come through with the character, which is coupled with strong direction from Rodriguez. They come together to make Alita a very strong emotional center for the film. The film gets to demonstrate an interesting arc as Alita is basically born and gets to grow into a mature adult over the course of the story.

Christoph Waltz also puts in a strong performance as the emotional and adoptive father-figure to Alita. It’s a chance for Waltz to play a more compassionate character. It’s a good relationship onscreen. Though at times, Waltz’s Ido switches a bit too fast from overprotective dad to a more supportive but encouraging father figure.

The visual effects are definitely amazing and look fairly realistic. Many characters in the world of Iron City are augmented with cybernetics or mechanical parts. For some of the Hunter Warriors, their cybernetics appear to be a mark of pride, so much so that they look down on full-blooded humans without any cybernetic upgrades. The way cyborgs of the future, such as the nefarious Hunter Warrior Zapan (Skrein), view their upgrades as points of pride is fascinating.

Where Alita fails is that it does bite off a bit more than it can chew for story that’s supposed to introduce people into this new world. The problem with Alita is that Cameron and Rodriguez get much farther into the story than they should. As a result, a lot of story elements and subplots are set up without payoff. Fans of the manga will recognize it involves an important character related to Zalem. As a result, the character of Vector is essentially undermined as an antagonist. Mahershala Ali is a great performer, and he looks cool. However, Vector just lacks any bite or real menace to him.

Jackie Earle Haley’s Grewishka, a character heavily inspired by Makaku from the manga, has a bit of backstory and depth that could’ve been fleshed out a lot more instead of the choices made by Rodriguez and Cameron here. When Grewishka does confront Alita underground, there are little pieces displayed for a far more layered and tragic character there that are eschewed for a less favorable subplot.

As a result, Alita suffers the problem of setting up future installments in sequels that there are no guarantees of ever seeing the light of day. 2012’s John Carter suffered similar problems by setting up numerous subplots and characters who were not even present in the original A Princess of Mars story.

The sequel-bait subplots are also shabbily written and lack a great deal of sense or forethought. Poor Christoph Waltz is forced to verbally dump out a lot of the nonsense onscreen, and while that does make it sound cooler, it doesn’t help how ridiculous some of that material is. Sometimes it’s better to wait to get into the more complicated bits once the universe is established, and when the sequel looks like more of a sure thing.

The Comic-Con presentation for Alita definitely showed promise, and the final product lived up fairly well to those expectations. This is an action-adventure story that has its flaws, but also brings a cool anime/manga style that’s never really been pulled off this well in a live-action feature before. For that alone, Rodriguez deserves credit.

7.5
The final score: review Good
The 411
Alita: Battle Angel is a good action-adventure movie anchored by a great performance by Rosa Salazar as Alita and some strong direction by Robert Rodriguez. Working from James Cameron's original script and vision, Rodriguez does an excellent job of building and immersing the audience into this post-apocalyptic 26th-century world full of cyborgs and a floating city. The story problems is that the film lacks a more compelling protagonist for Alita to match up with. Vector isn't very menacing, and Grewishka is a bit too undercut. The movie was entertaining, but it'd be nice if filmmakers focused on just making the one movie first rather than making sure there's plenty left for an uncertain sequel.
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