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Alita: Battle Angel

February 15, 2019

 

     I just got out of Alita: Battle Angel. It's a subject I've talked at length about more than once, but for those who aren't aware, I'll repeat the basics. Alita: Battle Angel is a cyberpunk science fiction film directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron. It's based on the classic cyberpunk manga Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. In the year 2563, what's left of mankind lives Iron City. A scrapyard full of cyborgs, drifters and all kinds of danger, Iron City sits below the great sky city of Zalem. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who specializes in fixing cyborgs, is searching the scrapyard for parts when he comes across the head of cyborg girl. Against all odds, her brain is still intact. So, he takes her home and rebuilds her, naming her Alita (Rosa Salazar). Alita has no memory of who she was or where she comes from. What she does have is a series of programmed combat skills and the ability to attract trouble wherever she goes. Soon she finds herself up against criminals, bounty hunters, and the mysterious man controlling Iron City, and its citizens, behind the scenes.

     I thought this movie was great, and as a fan of the source material I couldn't be happier with it. In interviews, James Cameron said he wanted the film to cover the "spine" and "Motorball" arcs from the manga. Given that those stories take up all of volumes 2 and 4 respectively, I wasn't sure how they'd be able to fit everything in since the film is only 2 hours long. Without going into spoilers, they combined the stories, and it works damn well. Certainly, better than I thought it would. Despite some deviations, as all adaptations have, I felt Alita stayed true to the spirit of the source material, while still throwing in a few plot twists that caught me by surprise. One in particular had me on the edge of my seat.

     Alita lives in a violent world, and thus when the characters are in danger, you aren't certain they'll make it out alive, and some don't. It raises the stakes in a way most blockbuster films don't. It feels like, for lack of a better phrase, playing for keeps. While the gore is significantly toned down from the original manga (this film is PG-13 after all), it's still incredibly violent. Dismemberment is a common occurrence in Iron City, and we see heads and limbs regularly cut off and destroyed in various fashion. And it is glorious. This might be the best CGI (computer generated image) effects I've ever seen in a film, even surpassing Cameron's own Avatar. Alita feels like a real person, despite being a full CGI character. So given all that, let me be clear: this is a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen.

     However, despite the fantastic visuals being a significant selling point of this film, that's not what carries it. What really makes this film stand out amongst other gritty sad-future-cyberpunk-dystopia efforts are the characters and their relationships. While political issues are often intertwined with cyberpunk, here they take a back seat to the characters and how they evolve. The real heart of the film is Alita's relationship with Ido, her father figure, and her romance with street punk Hugo. Both of these individuals help her discover what it means to be human in different ways. I won't lie, Alita: Battle Angel may not be the thought provoking SF cinematic experience the way Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell are, but its heart and characters elevate this film above the typical popcorn blockbuster movie.

     Dark, beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, I wholeheartedly recommend Alita: Battle Angel. If you're a fan you'll be pleased. And if, for whatever reason, you're not, then it's a great introduction to the franchise. I sincerely hope this gets a sequel, because there's so much junk circulating out there that get undeserved sequels but second and more importantly, there's plenty more of Alita's story left to tell. For my final point, I'm going to repeat what I've said earlier. I hear a lot of clamoring for more films with women of color in lead roles. Well, here's your chance to support one. What matters in Hollywood is money, so if you want more films like this, you should go support this one.

 

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