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Alita: Battle Angel – Movie Review

You take a little bit of James Cameron and a little bit of Robert Rodriguez, have them adapt a Japanese manga about a post-apocalyptic city in the future filled with cyborgs and battle androids, and you get exactly what you expect in Alita: Battle Angel.

That’s not to say that combination is bad, but it isn’t exactly as outstanding as it could have been either. This feels a lot more like the visually and technically inspired Cameron who brought us Avatar (a visually stunning but ultimately trite and boring film) and a lot less like the creative forces who brought us such inventive and game-changing fun as Aliens, Terminator, Sin City, Desperado, and Spy Kids. In fact the film this reminds me of most from Rodriguez’s ouevre is Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. He’s having a lot of fun with what he can do technically, and there are beautiful moments of fun and unabashed joy on screen.

Our story is set in the post-apocalyptic Iron City, a town made up of junk dealers who thrive on the waste dropped on them from a floating city in the sky above. Hundreds of years in the future, technology abounds, and most people have cybernetic enhancements or replacements for various limbs due to the toughness of the life on the streets of Iron City, or to compete in a brutal demolition roller derby hybrid called Rollerball. Christoph Waltz is a doctor who is as much a mechanic as a healer. Scrounging through the junk heaps to find spare parts to operate a pro bono or low-cost clinic to the poorer city citizens of his neighborhood, one day he finds a fully functioning cybernetic core for an advanced android. Despite not being familiar with her alien technology, he adopts her as his own daughter even naming her after a child he previously lost, Alita, and placing her core in a body he had created for his daughter.

Alita goes on a sort of Pinocchio type journey trying to become a real girl, but ends up falling into some serious business, including becoming a bounty hunter and tracking down the criminals of their world. Did we mention there’s a serial killer on the loose hunting robotic body parts, and her father is somehow involved as are her friends?

However, this is only one of several interweaving storylines that seemed very mishmash together. This is the film’s most fatal flaw, as it attempts to throw-in multiple storylines from a long-running manga series. In its attempts to do everything, it is in reality not really about any of them, as they all receive short shrift.

Unfortunately, apart from the technical wizardry needed to pull this off, this all feels like it would have been a lot more impressive if we would I’ve seen it 15 years ago. This film spent so much time on its effects, it forgot to build its Tin Man a little bit more of a heart.

Although we should say that the actual character of Alita is incredibly emotionally mature. Despite being 100% CGI via a new revolutionary form of performance capture, you rarely feel the Uncanny Valley. Alita is as real as anyone else. That’s actually incredibly amazing, given exactly what is needed to make that happen.

Unfortunately she doesn’t have a better story to play in. While there is some real warmth with her sort-of adopted father, there just isn’t much pathos in these characters.

The plot also sometimes veers into the nonsensical. After hitting an incredible high at the climax of the second act which was fun and breathtaking, suddenly the plot veers off to be about playing roller ball.

It makes for a weird tonal shift and the film never quite recovers, even as it tries to jerk back to a more serious narrative.

The film also sets itself up for an inevitable sequel in one of the most telegraphed endings in a long time. Rodriguez and Cameron should know better.

Despite those problems, this movie is a lot of fun in multiple places. Seeing tiny Alita take on multiple bounty hunters or giant cyborgs double and triple her size with the most amazing cybernetic appendages and weapons is truly a sight to behold.

This is the same sort of fun that you get out of a Star Wars, or indeed out of Rodriguez’s El Mariachi movies with their ridiculous over the top action sequences. Fans of visuals and insane fighting sequences will have a great time with this film, but those who might expect more in the way of plot consistency and character development might be found wanting more.

Still Alita is an amazing technical feat whose impact should not be underestimated, as the motion performance capture technology will no doubt be groundbreaking for decades to come.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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