Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

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In the future, a catastrophic war has left the Earth devastated. Now, the last remaining humans live in a trash-covered, overcrowded metropolis, Iron City, which sits below a floating utopia, Zalem. Iron City’s inhabitants dream of going up to Zalem, but are not permitted to. And so, they do everything in their power, stealing, bounty-hunting, gladiatorial combat, to enter the flying paradise. In the midst of all this, Dr. Ido, a scientist who came down from Zalem years ago, finds a cyborg girl in the trash, realizes she’s still alive, and so rebuilds her. The girl, whom he names Alita after his deceased daughter, can’t remember her past, but possesses incredible abilities, including knowledge of the long-dead martial art Panzer Kunst, which was used by soldiers during the war. Things only get more complicated when Nova, a man up on Zalem, begins recruiting people down on the ground, including gangsters, bounty hunters and hit men, to bring him Alita’s heart. Will she survive? Will she find out who she is? Well…

Alita: Battle Angel is the best American anime adaptation I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, that’s really not saying too much. Still, as a film, Alita is a fast-paced, visually stunning, solidly acted sci-fi spectacle. I was never bored while watching it, and I do want to see it again. The movie comes to us from writer/producer James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) and director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn), and features a lot of what people like in their work. It’s got the immaculate visual effects and epic scale you’d expect from Cameron, and the quick pacing, hyper-stylized action, and incredibly overqualified cast you’d expect from Rodriguez. Seriously, Rodriguez always manages to cram his modern-day grind house films full of Oscar-winners and A-listers, and Alita is no exception. There are throwaway villains and side characters in this movie that are played by top tier actors. Normally that would bother me, but the truth is, because the actors playing these one-note roles are so charismatic and good, they manage to make their parts memorable.

At the same time, though, the film also features a lot of things that people have criticized Rodriguez and Cameron for. It’s got really wooden dialogue, for one thing. “I’m real sorry she humiliated you so severely.” “You are so beautiful. I want to cut you open and see if you’re ugly inside.” “You are the most human person I ever met.” These are actual lines said, without a hint of irony, in this film.   I guess it’s a testament to the actors, especially Rosa Salazar, whom plays Alita, that they are able to deliver such good performances, in spite of such bad writing. On top of the poor dialogue, the characters are anything but well developed, as they tend to be in Cameron films. Part of this has to do with the fact that the movie ends inconclusively. You never meet Nova, Alita never fully regains her memories, and you never go to Zalem. It’s all left open to be explored in a sequel, which is frustrating. A film should tell one complete story, and its success should determine whether or not a sequel is warranted. There’s also no single, master plot. Alita wants to be a bounty hunter for 30 minutes, then she wants to play a deadly, gladiatorial sport called Motor Ball, and then she wants to go up to Zalem with her boyfriend. Even less favorably remembered films, like Elysium, have single, master plots. Alita doesn’t, and so it becomes harder to care about her, since you don’t really know what she wants. Still, Alita’s quick pace, spectacular visuals, and its good performances make it a fun, if not groundbreaking, ride, and a welcome step up from previous anime adaptations, like Ghost In The Shell. Make of this what you will.

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