Movie Review: ‘ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL’ – Whew! James Cameron has too much money… but writing skills, not so much

Connor Bynum // Film Critic

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson and Casper Van Dien

Adaptations of popular anime and manga series for the big screen have had a fairly rough time with American audiences. Such films often receive criticism for casting white actors for Asian characters. Others come down to relative unpopularity with mainstream audiences. So, if anyone can have a chance at producing such a movie and have it make way more money than anyone could anticipate, it’s James Cameron.

Written and produced by Cameron – but directed by stylistic action director Robert Rodriguez – ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is the latest attempt at bringing a beloved manga series into the spotlight for conventional audiences.

The film takes place nearly 300 years in the future, after a war referred to simply as “the Fall.” After the war, society was left divided into two classes: 1) the rich and privileged who live among the clouds in the floating city of Zalem and 2) everyone else who lives beneath them in the bluntly titled, Iron City. The people of Iron City certainly live up to the name, as nearly everyone has some sort of robotic modification attached to their bodies a la UPGRADE. It is directly beneath Zalem where Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) stumbles across the barely intact body of a cyborg girl named Alita (Rosa Salazar) with a “very human brain.” After rebuilding her broken parts, Ido quickly learns that Alita is more than what she seems.

Based off of the similarly titled manga BATTLE ANGEL ALITA, this is a high concept film that is destined for a difficult time winning over audiences unfamiliar with its source material. When it comes to making a film based in a world with a deep lore and history, having characters go out of their way to explain to the audience just exactly what is going on is somewhat unavoidable. However, the means at which Cameron has these characters provide non-stop exposition during the first hour or so of the film eventually starts to come across as lazy screenwriting. To be fair, there is a massive amount of information from the manga that the film has to convey to the audience for any of this adaptation to work at all. Yet, by the time the third consecutive new character shows up, introduces themselves to Alita, and proceeds to explain yet another aspect of the film’s universe to her (and therefore the audience), it begins to feel like there could be far more subtle ways to build the world of the film.

Thankfully, once all the obligatory world building is out of the way, the film finally allows the audience to have a good time. Robert Rodriguez once again proves himself to be one of the most gifted action directors of our time. In a film where a dozen computer-generated robotic characters race down a treacherous speedway, all while trying to murder each other, it could have been so easy to lose track of what on earth is happening on screen. Yet, Rodriguez pulls all of it off with marvelous ease and provides the audience with some of the most thrilling action spectacles the big screen has to offer.

However, none of the spectacle would work if Alita herself was not as beautifully rendered through Salazar’s motion capture performance. Make no mistake, Alita is one of the most convincing computer generated characters ever made, even with her occasionally distracting anime eyes. Salazar (MAZE RUNNER series) simultaneously embodies the naivety of a young child and the ferocity of a battle-hardened warrior with magnificent ease. Waltz also does a fine job with the material he is given and his dynamic with Salazar is charming and convincing.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the supporting cast. Oscar winners Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT) and Jennifer Connolly (A BEAUTIFUL MIND) are given barely anything to do with their respective characters. Ali, in particular, spends half of his screen time being remotely possessed by the film’s main antagonist, Nova (Edward Norton), who also makes little more than a glorified cameo.

Living in the age of mega franchises running the film industry, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that ALITA is only the latest attempt to kickstart a larger series of movies. Given its source material, there are definitely more stories to be told in this world, but whether or not audiences will ever get to see them come to life onscreen ultimately comes to how well this one performs. It is unfortunate that this film spends so much of its running time establishing its world before actually getting into the good stuff, but personally, I would be more than happy to see where this franchise goes in future installments. Let’s just hope the rest of the moviegoing public feels the same.

Grade: C+

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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