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Alita: Battle Angel

It’s been a long time since we’ve witnessed significant filmmaking from Robert Rodriguez. The Texas-born director, who was (and is) considered a maverick filmmaker, has returned with a big budget studio film whose release has been pushed back at least twice (the first time was to complete the visual effects; the second time was to coincide with Chinese New Year). Alita is based on the Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro and it follows a female cyborg and her quest to remember her past. Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Keean Johnson, Alita is a sci-fi actioner that’s also a love story and coming of age tale.

Believe it or not, James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) co-wrote this script with Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island). Alita languished in development hell for years, waiting for Cameron to take time away from his colossal Avatar series to work on this budding franchise. But with Robert Rodriguez tapped as director in 2016, it seemed like Alita would finally hit the big screen.

Earth is recovering from a great war known as "The Fall," and Salazar plays Alita. She was found in a junkpile, near lifeless, by Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz), and he repairs and brings her back to life. With a new body and a fresh start, she moves to learn about life, while living in Iron City, under Ido's care. Alita begins to recall faint memories while simultaneously learning of Ido’s secret identity, and soon she is wanted dead by Vector (Ali), a “promoter” of a popular (but deadly) sport called Motorball. With Ido’s ex-wife, Chirren (Connelly), working with and for Vector, Alita’s life becomes more complicated as she realizes she is the sole survivor of a hallowed martial art that was thought to be lost forever.

If nothing else, Alita is full of impressive visual effects. When Cameron was on board as director, the budget was rumored to be much greater than the $175 million Fox allotted when Rodriguez took over. That’s not chump change, either, and you can see where that money went. Alita is gorgeous, and even though Earth is in complete disarray there lies beauty within all that carnage.

The visual effects enhance the action scenes, which are impressive and look very (VERY) expensive. Rodriguez crafted massive action set pieces, which are also easy to follow, and the veteran director doesn’t use a plethora of cuts.

The story isn’t the easiest to follow because Alita’s backstory is revealed meticulously – and there are multiple subplots. A combination of slow pacing and, what is presumably Rodriguez’s quest to heighten his titular character’s mysterious past, creates a some frustration, especially when you're itching to see Alita kick some butt.

Johnson plays Hugo, a teenager who dreams of living in the utopian-billed city in the sky known as Zalem. He serves as Alita’s guide and love interest, and his desire to reach Zalem may compromise his relationship with the cyborg.

Overall, the acting is fine – the best performance comes from Waltz. Waltz has played many diverse characters, but this is the first time I remember him as a father figure. He is solid as he plays Ido like a protective father who’s hesitant to teach a daughter too much too soon (for fear of her losing any shot at a childhood). But Alita is an aypical child, as the trailers can attest.

Speaking of Alita, Salazar is serviceable. I didn’t find much in her in terms of charm, but she did well enough to make Alita more human than machine. Still, I had trouble buying her performance. In addition, her romance with Hugo felt forced and did little to complete Alita's story arc.

Alita’s biggest flaw is there's too much focus on setting up sequels. In particular, Ali’s Vector isn’t the true villain, but a figurehead whose power in Iron City is undermined by a bigger villain, waiting above in Zalem (Ali is sorely underused). If this had been a simple standalone origin story things might’ve worked out much better.

And if you pay attention at all to Robert Rodriguez and his films, you will recognize a tinge of his signature "Rodriguez-verse." This isn't a spoiler, but be on the lookout for Jeff Fahey, who's worked with Rodriguez before (namely during Planet Terror).

Regardless, Alita is an action film full of cyberpunk angst that feels like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner. Much like Ghost in the Shell, there are clearly Asian characters who aren't played by Asians and, unlike Blade Runner, it doesn’t set itself apart to be considered a classic (it's flawed enough to be considered a bad movie). This is still an interesting, layered sci-fi that has the potential to be great. But it needs better writing in order to make it there.

3 stars out of 5

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