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"ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL"
(2019) (Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi: A centuries-old cyborg must use her battle skills to protect herself and those she cares for from others who want her captured or killed, all while trying to remember her past.
PLOT:
It's the year 2563, some three-hundred years after "The Fall." Most of the people live in the crowded Iron City and dream of one day being able to ascend to Zalem, the sky city that hovers above the land and where life is reportedly much better. One such person is Hugo (KEEAN JOHNSON), a young man who, along with his friend Tanji (JORGE LENDEBORG JR.) and others, forcibly removes robotic limbs from cyborgs and sells them to Vector (MAHERSHALA ALI). He runs a popular sports enterprise known as Motorball where the competitors benefit from such upgrades to their limbs and other operating parts thanks to the work of Chiren (JENNIFER CONNELLY).

She's the ex-wife of Dr. Dyson Ido (CHRISTOPH WALTZ), a scientific inventor who does the same for normal people and is enticed upon finding the head and upper torso of a young female cyborg. Outfitting her with the robotic body he and Chiren had developed for their late daughter, Dyson names his find Alita (ROSA SALAZAR). Both of them quickly learn, however, that she's much, much older than she looks and has a military background, but can't remember any of that.

She and Hugo become pals and then more, but her existence and abilities draw the unwelcome attention of others who either want her captured or killed, including the likes of cyborg bounty hunter Zapan (ED SKREIN) and the hulking cyborg Grewishka (JACKIE EARLE HALEY). As Alita's fighting skills come into full light, she must put them to use to defend herself and those she cares for, all while trying to figure out her past and her new place in this world.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although written and composed by Rick Evans in 1964, the song "In the Year 2525" didn't become a hit until it was released by the rock-pop duo of Zager and Evans four years later. What's remarkable about it -- beyond reportedly being the only song to hit number one in both the U.S. and Britain without any subsequent follow-up by the band even hitting the charts -- is how prescient the lyrics turned out to be.

It warns of the reliance on future technology essentially dooming humankind, but the one thing it likely gets wrong are the years in which those predictions are supposed to be a reality. It came to mind while watching "Alita: Battle Angel," not only because the setting of the story is the year 2563, but also due to the intermingling of technology not only in human's lives, but also their bodies.

But like that one-hit wonder from half a century ago, this one's time frame seems too far forward in regard to what likely will have been achieved long before another five hundred plus years roll around. I realize that's a nitpicky way to start off a review and we're told right away that the story is taking place three hundred years after some sort of post-apocalyptic war event known as The Fall, but things might have proved more intriguing and mysterious the less we could have known.

What is known, at least to those in the industry, movie buffs and "fanboys/fangirls" alike is that this is the culmination of filmmaker James Cameron's long-gestating pet project following his last cinematic outing of a little flick a few of you might have heard of, "Avatar." Serving as the screenwriter, producer and creative consultant (including on the mega expensive special effects), this is Cameron's adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga series "Gunnm."

With Robert Rodriguez ("Sin City," "Desperado") in the director's seat, cinematographer Bill Pope doing the lensing, special effects powerhouse WETA (among others) handling the visuals, and a great cast in front of the camera, everything would seem set for this to be a huge, event sort of movie.

In many ways it is, and while you often hear critics and regular moviegoers state that a certain film needs to be seen on the big screen, this is the epitome of that statement. Featuring more visual bang for your buck than many a studio tent-pole offering, along with some terrific action and a compelling motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar as the title character, the film has individual moments that can be summed up with one word -- "Wow!"

The story, though, is only so-so. There are all sorts of ways that Cameron could have gone with it -- including playing off the obvious parallels not only to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but also Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio -- but those are more just obvious coincidences than anything with real creative intent. In short, just 38 years after the first lyric of Zager and Evans' song, a scientific inventor (Christoph Waltz) finds what's left of a cyborg (Salazar) and uses the robotic body he and his now ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly) created for their disabled girl back before her untimely death.

While Waltz's Dyson Ido helps rebuild the locals with robotic parts, Connelly's Chiren does the same for competitors in that era's most popular sport, Motorball (think Rollerball meets demolition derby), that's run by the mysterious Vector (Mahershala Ali). When the newly reconfigured Alita surprises everyone by showing her Bourne Identity style "I have amnesia but I somehow remember to fight" stuff -- including versus a fierce cyborg bounty hunter (Ed Skrein in a cool F/X visual creation) and an even bigger cyborg (Jackie Earle Haley, as if The Hulk got some replacement robotic parts) -- that obviously draws everyone's attention.

Not only does that put her at risk, but also a fledgling romance between her and the now grown up street urchin sort of character played by Keean Johnson. He's hoping to make enough money jacking robotic limbs from unwilling cyborg "donors" to make it up to Zalem, the seemingly luxurious sky city floating above the decidedly less so Iron City. And all while that happens, Alita has brief flashbacks to when she was a soldier engaged in a fierce battle.

There's plenty going on here and Rodriguez keeps things moving along at a fairly brisk clip. But this is one of those flicks not so subtly designed as the introductory chapter to something intended to be much broader, and thus plenty of loose threads are left hanging by the time things don't wrap up at the end of the slightly more than two-hour runtime.

I'm not crazy about flicks that do that as any film -- regardless of whether it's intended as a one-off or just one cog of a multi-part expansive tale -- needs to have a story with a defined beginning, middle and end to give viewers closure. Here, it feels like a tease and one where we might not have our questions answered should the pic not perform well enough at the box office to justify its huge budget and what one would assume would be the same for another follow-up or two.

Even so, enough of the flick works -- thanks to Salazar's creation of her character via motion capture performance, the cool special effects, and the fight and action scenes -- that I give "Alita: Battle Angel" a score of 6 out of 10.




Reviewed January 31, 2019 / Posted February 14, 2019


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