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Movies B B.C.
Big eyes, slightly less big thrills.
(Updated: February 15, 2019)
Overall rating 
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Disembodied limbs fly across the screen in slow motion. Twisting in flight they spray a synthetic blue blood. A seedy underworld teems with nasty cyborgs, armed to the teeth with swords, spikes, and grappling hook fingers. They have human faces, but like Robocop their humanity has all been stripped away in the name of technological advancement and enhanced brutality. The dystopian setting of Alita: Battle Angel is a dark, frightening place. It seems almost too much for the film’s age bracket-spanning PG-13 rating, but there is an almost cartoonish innocence that wears down the sharpest edges. Alita: Battle Angel is a fairy-tale set in a meat grinder, fueled by spectacle and adolescent charm.

It is an odd combination, but not exactly perplexing. The drive of the story is its softness - characters are motivated by their feelings towards each other. Despite being a cyborg created for *minor spoiler* nefarious purposes, Alita behaves more humanely than any of the other meat bags living amongst the robot hybrids. It is a necessary quality for a traditional type of protagonist, despite her outward appearance. The swordplay and skull crushing is just the filler material - the eye candy to keep you captivated. Can she not be allowed to fall in love and hack bad guys to pieces?

Alita’s (Rosa Salazar) journey begins in pieces. Her human brain is encased in an advanced cybernetic torso which is found by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), a scientist who repairs and creates cybernetic enhancements for the inhabitants of Iron City. Iron City is composed of farms and factories to supply a giant floating city called Zalem that hovers in the sky above, Earth’s last floating city to survive a devastating war. Ascendance to Zalem is not common, and remains a motivator for many citizens of Iron City to partake in unsavory ventures. Ido gives Alita a new body, but she can’t remember anything about her past until she begins exploring the city with her new human friend Hugo. The brutality of a popular sport, Motorball, brings out a repressed ferocity in Alita. This reconnection with her lost memories motivates her to press further into the dangerous criminal underground in an attempt to both learn more about herself and help her friends.

The film is based on the cyberpunk manga series Battle Angel Alita, AKA Gunnm. Released in the early 1990’s, it is easy to see how this work has influenced many properties since. However, this film adaptation reaches us after those influences have already made their mark. What results is a film that, while based on a creative concept, today seems much more familiar than it would have been two decades ago. Like Allita’s aforementioned robotic adversaries (and most big-budget films these days), Alita: Battle Angel is comprised of many elements borrowed from other places. There’s a physical separation of socioeconomic classes and the people fighting against the system just like in Elysium. Alita’s innate ability to kick-ass and near invulnerability alludes to Ghost in the Shell, and her emergence from a trash heap reminds me of the 1998 Kurt Russell action vehicle, Soldier.

The film was originally supposed to be made in the early 2000’s when filmmaker James Cameron became obsessed with the concept of the original source material. But due to his workload on other projects, Cameron eventually had to step aside. He remains as co-writer and producer, and his fingerprints on the end result are apparent, for better and for worse. If there is one thing Cameron has demonstrated with his films it is a commitment to advancing special effects, and indeed I am here to report Alita: Battle Angel looks great. Advances in motion capture mean the human and non-human elements blend seamlessly. Alita’s large artificial eyes end up as a unique and enchanting quality rather than being a distraction, and also allow homage to the original art. Alita isn’t necessarily as ground breaking as some of Cameron’s past special-effects fueled blockbusters, but it is still a satisfactory feast for the eyes.

However, Cameron’s focus on special effects have often left other areas of his productions lacking. Criticisms against Cameron’s scripts, for example, have often focused on his inability to create realistic characters, and his adherence to more traditional storytelling techniques which today seem a bit anachronistic. In other words, Alita: Battle Angel is one of those films that fits into the category of predictable. There’s the obvious love interest that leads to a perfectly timed first kiss, betrayals you can see coming from a mile away, and a general zero to hero storyline you’ve seen umpteen million times before. Indeed, Alita goes from innocently tasting chocolate for the first time to stomping on the necks of cybernetically enhanced thugs in darkened alleyways a few minutes later. The juxtaposition between sweet and deadly is supposed to be appealing in some regards, but in many ways it just makes the film too convenient to take seriously.

Admittedly, the cliches do help streamline the plot. With a run time of 157 minutes, the movie does cover a lot of ground. Rodriguez even reportedly won the job as director because of his ability to pare down Cameron’s original lengthy script. And so, complaints about the watered down (read PG-13) presentation and Disney fairytale-on-fast forward script have to at least consider the fact that the film would not have been commercially viable without these sacrifices. The film even sports a cliffhanger ending, which disappoints for obvious reasons, but in a way is mercy for the viewer because of just how much we have been through up until that point in time. And while we are on the topic of beard-growing runtime, it brings up the question of exactly who this film is meant for. Fans of the source material and gritty sci-fi for sure, but the PG-13 rating and rapid-fire coming of age plot line suggests a younger demographic which will surely be squirming in their seats.

As director, Rodriguez’s latest film channels his past successes. There’s the kid-friendly yet adventurous edge of Spy Kids, matched with the gonzo/grindhouse appeal of Machete. Rodriguez brings his own vision and look to the film, which gives the original manga a Hispanic flair. With three Oscar-winning actors in important roles, the performances are rather lackadaisical, although Rosa Salazar is an intriguing exception. Salazar gives Alita an infectious energy, as if her giant eyes are meant to symbolize an insatiable curiosity and drive which the downtrodden citizens of Iron City were all struggling without. She is the energy at the center of the film which powers its zany action sequences and keeps the audience cheering, even if there are some attributes which don’t always deserve praise. This makes Alita: Battle Angle an entertaining science fiction spectacle despite some of its struggles.
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