SP Review: 'Alita: Battle Angel' gives beloved manga a proper stage

Arts and culture reporter Brandon King gives 'Alita: Battle Angel' 7/10 stars

Going into "Alita: Battle Angel," I assumed I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into, and I honestly wasn't ecstatic about that prediction. 

Understandably, I'd have to be a fool to doubt a project with James Cameron's name attached as a producer. But Robert Rodriguez has pretty much established himself as one of the most eclectic filmmakers of the last decade or so, with a filmography ranging from "Sin City" to the "Spy Kids" series. 

On top of that, another big budget North American manga adaptation after the misfires of "Dragonball: Evolution," "Death Note" and "Ghost In The Shell" felt a bit too confident that this was going to come out alright.

It may be early in the year, but "Alita: Battle Angel" might just end up being one of my most pleasant surprises of the year. For a movie that had such potential for disaster, and still comes out a bit shaky to be quite honest, "Alita: Battle Angel" stands as an ambitious and entertaining project that proves the genre is viable for engaging stories.

The story takes place in distant future of the 26th century, where a heavenly "sky city" called Zalem rules over the land below called Iron City, where all the discarded trash from Zalem ends up. 

Here we meet Dr. Dyson Ido (played by Christoph Waltz), a doctor with a specialization in bionic limbs who finds a discarded cyborg in the scrapyards, and miraculously, it's still alive. He brings it back to his lab and recreates the cyborg (played by Rosa Salazar), finding that she has no memories of her previous life. 

The girl, who Dr. Ido names "Alita," begins to explore Iron City and becomes fascinated with the culture, the high-stakes sport of Motorball and Zalem itself. 

While all this is happening, Alita is being quietly pursued by the powers that be – a scientist named Chiren (played by Jennifer Connelly) and a Motorball promoter named Vector (played by Mahershala Ali), who believe Alita to be more powerful and important than she herself realizes. 

The trailers to this film try to promote it as the sort of — and please read this in your best movie trailer voice — "one girl going up against the evil government in a post-apocalyptic wasteland," which, let's face it, feels a bit overdone at this point. "Alita: Battle Angel" contains that idea, but isn't so much reliant on it as a main focus of its story. 

Rather, it feels much more intimate and the stakes it brings feel incredibly centralized to the main character. Sure, there's still plenty of mythology squeezed in, and Iron City itself isn't the most unique design of a future landscape, but Rodriguez cleverly realizes that the setting and history of the film are nothing if we don't have a conduit to focus on.

In this case, that conduit is Alita herself, and Salazar is nothing less than tremendous, in what I would confidently describe as one of the best non-Andy Serkis motion-capture performances in recent memory. 

Alita is set apart by an incredible sense of empathy and interest, something that seems to be lost on other manga and young-adult protagonists. 

Essentially, we get a character who doesn't waste the runtime brooding about how hard life is. She acknowledges it, but it never becomes her driving focus. Because of this degree of hope, Rodriguez delivers a film that feels easier to believe in on an emotional level. 

Where "Alita: Battle Angel" doesn't totally work is in its script. I mentioned that this film works on an emotional level, but it slides a bit on the narrative level. The film seems almost determined to skimp on character moments in favor of more world-building, and those moments can feel either incredibly rushed or drawn-out. 

Terrific actors like Ali and Connelly, along with Alita's love interest Hugo (played by Keann Johnson) get moments of clarity, but feel wasted in a script that seems unconcerned in conveying interest in them. There's also a story point near the end that, while pretty haunting in the implications, does feel eager to set up sequels instead of having more singular focus. 

The story and supporting characters leave a bit to be desired in "Alita: Battle Angel," but even so, there's still something legitimately investing here. 

You feel invested in Alita's story and, even though the stakes may not be end-of-the-world level, you want to see how this character explores the world and discovers herself. There's so many films that try and fail to accomplish what "Alita: Battle Angel" does, and I hope we get more stories like it.

Overall, I give "Alita: Battle Angel" a rating of 7/10 stars.

Reach the reporter at brandon.D.King@asu.edu or follow @TheMovieKing45 on Twitter.

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