Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (the eyes have it)

The amalgamation of Cameron, Rodriguez, and cyberpunk manga; cue lightning flashes throughout the laboratory and throw back your head in maniacal laughter!

Sifting through a strewn junkyard beneath a floating city on 26th-century Earth, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds discarded parts of a cybernetic organism… and a human brain inexplicably alive inside. Awakening fully aware and intelligent but with no idea who she is, the restored young woman is named Alita (Rosa Salazar) by Dyson. Street hustler Hugo (Keean Johnson) notices it first, but Alita displays a taste and talent for combat situations with a surprising level of prowess and sophistication. With actionable activity creating flashes of memory containing possible clues to her past, Alita doesn’t go unnoticed for long… especially with the suffering under-city always looking for contestants and conscriptions to use up under the watchful manipulative eye of “Nova” from the sky-city above.

Based upon the three-decades old Japanese comic series “Gunnm” created by Yukito Kishiro, there are a lot of expectations for this adaptation, especially in light of the whitewashing controversy surrounding the lukewarm Scarlett Johansson live-action feature Ghost in the Shell. With plenty of similarities — female protagonist, lost memories, combat capabilities — this tale skews less worldly and more fairy-tale like with a (literally) wide-eyed innocent discovering her own power and choosing how to use it. Championing all the earmarks of a summer blockbuster and the usual aspirations for a franchise, is Alita finally battle-ready enough to conquer the box office and enchant audiences with her story?

Whereas Ghost in the Shell felt bleak from the get-go — the end of a long hard battle we missed most of — Alita wields an instant sense of discovery and new beginnings. In contrast to Shell’s bleak skies and constant brooding, this film conveys hope, as though Alita’s re-entering of the world foretells its rebirth after almost perishing in “The Fall.” As viewers follow their hero into darker corners and bigger threats, the production does an impressive job of seeding backstory as needed rather than rely on overlong narrated info dumps — no small task considering the scope of Alita’s world. Stylized, vibrant, and impactful, the first great escape of 2019 has arrived.

Those eyes, though… although viewers who’ve seen the trailer a time or three may already be used to them. Under the careful editing and production design brought by producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodrigeuz (both with their fingerprints on the adapted screenplay), it takes little time to get used to the effect and settle in for a page-turning adventure that, while somewhat predictable, embraces its tropes rather than pretend they don’t exist. Consider “born sexy yesterday,” a manga trope where a female character appears as a newborn adult that everyone loves and wants for their own — as a parent, a lover, or horribly both — often the first opportunistic pretty young face from the street with which she forms an exploitable bond. Alita (and by proxy the filmmakers) avoid the creeptastic potential by focusing on physical damage as the greatest danger to her… and where she can readily succeed.

This editing-room balancing act is where the film excels. Clocking in right at two hours, it moves along steadily — alternating between action and discovery as vital clues drop. While some of the cast seems to have little to do other than scheme in the shadows — Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, specifically — others are well-utilized, including the nicest killer Waltz has played to date and Ed Skrein’s pretty-boy enhanced hunter practically begging for comeuppance (nice sword ya got there, pal). Sharp eyes will notice Rodriguez stocking the cast with usual go-to’s Jeff Fahey and Eiza González, plus surprising-if-brief turns by Derek Mears, Rick Yune, Casper Van Dien as well as a character who is physically the size of Jackie Earle Haley’s presence as an actor. It also cannot be understated that Rosa Salazar provides the motion-captured CGI title character with the soul necessary to carry the production.

It’s big, loud, and unapologetically kinetic. There are a few overplayed story points — Flash Gordon trying to convince Prince Barin to team up and fight Ming the Merciless comes to mind — and a fair share of introducing convenient props just prior to their practical use. Read: all red herrings have been edited out; if it’s on the screen, it’s probably important. The centurions look suspiciously like lumbering ED-209s, but then again, Zapan kind of looks like RoboCop’s disaffected rebellious murding teenager; it’s the kind of future where everything has an enhancement and filmmakers get to wink at their inspirations. For those seeking a cure for the late-winter blahs, this may be the world-building high adventure fortified with underdog-championing hopefulness in a bright manga wrapper you’ve been yearning for.

Alita: Battle Angel is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, for some language, and severed limbs throughout… like, a lot.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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