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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ fights the good fight

February 20, 2019
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Considering the popularity of sci-fi/fantasy fare, you’d think that Hollywood would be better at adapting Japanese anime and manga for American audiences. However, whether it’s a cultural divide or an aesthetic difference or what have you, the undeniable appeal of those properties usually winds up getting lost in translation.

So when I started seeing ads for “Alita: Battle Angel,” I was skeptical. Based on Yukito Kushiro’s popular “Gunnm” manga from the early 1990s, it’s the sort of complex, thematically dense work that Hollywood has traditionally screwed up. Why would this time be any different?

But then I looked closer. It’s a marvelous collection of talent. You’ve got Robert Rodriguez, one of the best “genre” filmmakers of his generation, directing. Rodriguez also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Laeta Kalogridis and James Cameron – yes, that James Cameron – who also served as producer and has been moving this project forward for the better part of two decades. Oh, and there’s also an incredibly talented cast featuring far more Oscar winners and nominees than you might have anticipated for a seemingly straightforward sci-fi shoot-‘em-up.

Does it live up to that pedigree? Maybe not quite; there are some clarity issues regarding the storytelling and a few uncanny valley concerns regarding the CGI. However, there’s no disputing the vivid visual nature of the film; there are dynamic set pieces scattered throughout. And the performers all treat the material with due respect, resulting in nuanced and complex performances beyond the standard genre fare.

The year is 2563. The world is still in ruins following a massive war known colloquially as “The Fall.” Of the once-ubiquitous sky cities, only the one known as Zalem remains, casting its shadow over Iron City, the scattershot settlement that has sprung up beneath it to serve the needs of the elite who live above.

Scavenging through the junk piles cast off by Zalem, cyberneticist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, “Downsizing”) discovers the still-living remains of a cyborg girl. He takes her back to his shop and gives her a new body – the same body he built long ago for his daughter.

When Alita (Rosa Salazar, “Bird Box”) awakes in her new body, she has no memories of her previous life. Even her name is a gift bestowed upon her by her benefactor. Dr. Ido seeks to help her reconnect with her past, taking her out into the chaotic sprawl of Iron City. That’s where she meets Hugo (Keean Johnson, TV’s “Guidance”), a young man with big dreams of making his way to Zalem. He introduces her to his crew and to Motorball, a sport contested at the highest level by specially-modified cyborgs.

It is through Motorball that Hugo hopes to ascend. He has a connection with Vector (Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”), the de facto operator of Motorball. Vector has specific ideas about how the game should work – and who should win; he implements those ideas with the help of Chiren (Jennifer Connolly, “Only the Brave”), a brilliant cybernetics expert who also happens to share a past with Ido.

Alita begins to realize that there’s a lot more to her past than anyone expected; she soon discovers a number of unanticipated gifts that put her on the radar of various lowlifes and bounty hunters – particularly the monstrous Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley, TV’s “The Tick”) and the egomaniacal Zapan (Ed Skrein, “If Beale Street Could Talk”).

She’s at the center of an ever-expanding web of secrets and lies. A lot of people are very interested in what Alita can do for them, but her very life depends on remembering just what she can do for herself.

“Alita: Battle Angel” is one of the better manga adaptations we’ve seen. Few have handled being Americanized as smoothly. That’s not to say that there aren’t issues both structural and cultural, but it’s tough to deny that what we have here is an entertaining piece of sci-fi cinema.

Rodriguez has never made any secret of his love for B-movie drive-in sensibilities; even when working within the studio machine, he always finds way to embrace the pulpiness of it all. And he does it here as well – it’s lurid not-quite-camp that offsets dazzling brightness and murky shadows. It’s a visual spectacle, to be sure. There’s some great action here, too; the fights are great, while the Motorball sequences are lifted straight from “Rollerball” (the 1975 Norman Jewison original, not the tepid 2002 John McTiernan remake) in the best possible way.

And man oh man … this cast. Salazar is great, projecting a little-girl-lost vibe while also maintaining a brutally hard edge beneath the surface. She holds her own amongst some real giants, which is impressive. The only undercutting factor is her appearance; the oversized CGI eyes aren’t quite where they need to be. Waltz is doting and fatherly, Ali is Machiavellian and sinister, Connolly is sharp and cynical … and all of them are excellent. They could have phoned it in and cashed their checks, but instead, they make an effort. And it shows. Haley and Skrein get it done in top-notch mo-cap performances. Johnson’s not quite at the level of the rest, but he’s fine.

(Oh, and Ed Norton is here – but you’ll have to watch for yourself to find out where.)

“Alita: Battle Angel” is a much more sophisticated film than you might think. It’s not a great movie – too narratively haphazard in some spots, too plot-thin in others – but it’s a good one. The visual spectacle and action-oriented excitement alone are worth the price of admission. And with the (admittedly clunky) sequel-hinting ending, we might get to explore more of this intriguing world.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 February 2019 14:19

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