In the 26th Century, the world is still recovering from a war 300 years earlier called The Fall. The rich and powerful live in the floating city of Zalem, the last sky city left from The Fall. Under Zalem is Iron City where life is hard, and people do whatever is necessary to survive. One of the few good people living in Iron City is Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a physician that takes care of the many citizens with artificial limbs. Zalem’s trash is ejected from the bottom of the floating city and collects in a massive dump in Iron City Dr. Ido is searching the dump to scavenge spare parts for his patients when he finds the head, shoulders and part of the chest of a female cyborg. Dr. Ido takes her to his office and attaches her head to a cybernetic body he already had on hand. When the cyborg comes back on line, she has no memory of her past. Dr. Ido calls her Alita (Rosa Salazar). While showing her around his neighborhood in Iron City, Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a scavenger that finds parts for Dr. Ido. Alita and Hugo fall for each other and plan to meet the next day. As Alita is on her way to meet Hugo, she is stopped by Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) who looks closely at Alita’s hand. Chiren is Dr. Ido’s ex-wife. The two divorced after the death of their daughter, also named Alita. The body cyborg Alita is using was built for Ido and Chiren’s daughter who was confined to a wheelchair, but she died before she could be transferred to her new body. There’s a violent sport called Motorball where the participants replace parts of their human bodies with cybernetic parts to improve their game play. Chiren works for Vector (Mahershala Ali), an entrepreneur with Motorball teams who gambles on the outcome that he also controls. Roaming the streets of Iron City are part cybernetic bounty hunters. One of the most successful is Zapan (Ed Skrein), a bounty hunter who is almost entirely machine. Alita is seeing flashes of memory whenever she’s involved in a violent conflict. She sees herself fighting a battle on the moon along side another female cyborg named Gleda (Michelle Rodriguez). As Alita becomes more known in Iron City, she becomes the target of people wanting her technology as it is something that hasn’t been seen since The Fall. The most dangerous person hunting her is Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a massive cyborg that doesn’t care who is hurt when he hunts. All the while, there’s an unseen master that is directing everything from Zalem.
Does the above plot synopsis of “Alita: Battle Angel” sound confusing? It’s pretty easy to follow as you’re watching, but there’s far too much going on in this adaption of the Japanese manga called “Gunnm” and the animated movie “Battle Angel.” Writers Laeta Kalogridis and James Cameron (yes, THAT James Cameron, who is also a producer) apparently wanted to stick in every subplot and side quest from the source material, overwhelming the audience and the plot, and making a scattershot film without a satisfying ending. It looks great, the action scenes are frequently impressive and the performance of Rosa Salazar is affecting, however “Alita: Battle Angel” is nothing more than a two-hour preview for “Alita: Battle Angel 2.”
As the movie was coming to an end, I got angry. I’ve been angry at characters and their actions, but few movies are able to create that feeling in me just for existing. “Alita: Battle Angel” is a rare exception as it caused me to question if I wanted to ask for my money back. Director Robert Rodriguez has crafted half a good movie out of a script containing enough material for at least three films and yet, there’s no ending. The movie concludes, but what happens is anti-climactic. As the credits begin to roll, it is clear the film is nothing but a long trailer for movies yet to come. It is infuriating that $170-million was spent to create a coming attraction for a film that may never start production as this entry probably won’t break even.
There’s something especially cynical about a movie, all of which are released with the hope and expectation that they’ll make money, that appears to only be a cursory introduction to characters so the audience will know them in the next movie when something will actually happen. Lots of things happen in “Alita: Battle Angel,” but none of them amount to anything by the end of the film. The audience is left with the knowledge that there’s more to come and, if we see it at all, it is several years from coming out. It’s like being promised a Christmas present, then that gets moved to Valentine’s Day, then your birthday and so on, until you just don’t care anymore.
The problem is I do care. I want to see a good story with these characters in this world. The world of manga and anime is one where great battles and epic stories are promised, and started, but we rarely get a real, definite conclusion. One need only watch an episode of any of the Dragonball series on Adult Swim to see what I’m talking about. Perhaps our patience will eventually be rewarded with a final showdown between Alita and the shadowy overseer that’s guiding everything from Zalem, but I don’t plan on holding my breath for a satisfying conclusion.
Despite my disappointment in “Alita: Battle Angel,” there are some nice elements in the film. First, Rosa Salazar is able to deliver a moving and believable performance via the facial motion-capture dots and cameras. Salazar squeezes empathy for Alita out of nearly every scene. Her caring for Dr. Ido and Hugo, and anyone who finds trouble on the streets of Iron City, including a stray dog, shines through the digital manipulation of her face to create the oversized eyes of Alita. The effects used to make her unique face don’t stick out like a sore thumb and, after a few minutes, you don’t notice much difference. Some of the action takes on the quality of a cut scene between segments of a video game, but those moments are brief and scattered. Some of the action is breathtaking and the violence is jarring as cyborgs are ripped apart, but the human head is still alive. That happens more than once in the film and it gets a little creepy on occasion.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and some language. There are numerous battle scenes, mostly involving cyborgs, and mechanical limbs go flying. Humans get hurt and killed as well. There isn’t much blood and no gore. Foul language is mild, but there is an “F-bomb.”
“Alita: Battle Angel” has some good points and, if it had a better ending, it might have gotten a higher rating from me. Since the likelihood of a sequel is fairly low, I guess we’ll have to make due with this version of the manga and anime. It’s too bad, as director Robert Rodriguez and writer/producer James Cameron have produced some amazing cinema over the last 30 years. Perhaps they have too many projects on their plates to provide a complete story and a satisfying ending. What we have here is most of a movie and a fair one at that, but it feels incomplete and more than a little cynical.
“Alita: Battle Angel” gets two stars out of five.
Opening this week are two new films with family at their cores. I’ll see and review one of the following:
Fighting with My Family—
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World—
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