Though a fan of science fiction I'm not familiar with Yukito Kishiro's 1990 manga comic Battle Angel Alita that inspired the latest Robert Rodriguez picture as produced by James Cameron. I'll clarify that I truly enjoy science fiction largely for the genre's ability, whether it be in the writing or when translated to the big screen-the concept artist, director, or costume and set designers-ability to create a new environment and/or new world's altogether. Further, to apply a structure to this environment where an advanced, and if not advanced at least futuristic society, exists where the world follows the rules of this implemented structure is inherently fascinating as it undoubtedly takes cues from our present world and applies what the creator might think will be to the human races benefit or ultimate detriment. Such prophecies within the genre over the years have created an amalgam of tropes, motifs and clichés, but while the dystopian future has been a familiar trend over the last few years especially it does well to establish a compelling backdrop or habitat, if you will, for the kind of people we come to know in Alita: Battle Angel. Cameron, Rodriguez, and Laeta Kalogridis's (Shutter Island) screenplay shows early on that it has the aforementioned innate ability and, more importantly, a strong desire to construct a world centuries ahead of our present time that is not only inventive, but feels fully realized and lived-in. What the screenplay doesn't do and arguably fails to do is follow through on the promises of this world in which it builds. Meaning, that while it's not automatically a negative to utilize familiar sci-fi and action tropes there does need to be a unique take on whatever traits your movie or story might be adopting from the genre and there are certainly flashes of as much in Alita, but most of it comes from the investment in our main character rather than any kind of investment in the beats she is following. You want to know more about the character, you want to live alongside them because this world that has been created feels so alive and so layered and so interesting, but it's almost as if you also wouldn't mind checking in on and seeing what other characters are up to because as much as we like Alita, there isn't really much depth or surprise to the video-game structured script that is pitting her against the ultimate final boss in the sky.

Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) attempts to bring a disembodied cyborg back to life after finding her remains in a junkyard.
To lend better perspective to both this world and story would be to set-up the premise of the film stating that the film begins five hundred-plus years in the future in this aforementioned dystopian society. There was a massive war referred to as "The Fall" that happened some three hundred years prior that has left earth as a planet of middle to lower class individuals who are constantly under the scrutiny of those who prosper on this city that floats above them in the sky, Zalem, and is run by a mysterious figure known only as Nova. Down on earth though, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) serves to help the people of his community in Iron City as the majority of the residents are part-cyborg and therefore require tune-ups and repairs from time to time-all of which Dr. Ido is proficient in. There is no real explanation as to why everyone in town has at least one robotic appendage, but it's a futuristic world, so we'll take the movie's word for it that for whatever reason these new accessories are necessary. In his spare time though, Dr. Ido scavenges through junkyards that are compiled of the trash that is dropped from Zalem. In the film's opening moments though, Dr. Ido comes upon a disembodied female cyborg with a fully intact human brain. Dr. Ido rebuilds the cyborg, who does not have any recollections of her past, eventually giving her the name "Alita" which, as you can probably guess (and by guess I mean know exactly what the connection is), has a significant connection to Dr. Ido's past. After waking up, Alita (a performance-captured Rosa Salazar) is eager to learn about the world around her quickly initiating friendships with people like Hugo (Keean Johnson) whom we see she immediately has something akin to affection for while making enemies out of full-on cyborgs like Zapan (Ed Skrein) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). And so begins Alita's journey to figure out who she was, where she came from, and what her capabilities are that will inevitably connect to Nova and Zalem and all that good stuff, but it is within this journey that the script introduces what seems to be this world's only source of entertainment in what is called "Motorball" (like if you set roller derby inside the world of Battle Royale) which is naturally controlled by an entrepreneur working under Nova a la Vector (Mahershala Ali) who may or may not also have a weird sexual pact with Ido's ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who is also a doctor and intent on getting back to Zalem, but can't help but to do the right thing. It is when these elements are introduced that Alita begins to lose focus. 

Unfortunately, the addition of these expanded threads in the film make it feel as if the majority of the story and most of the function of the plotting is to serve as this kind of prologue for what is to come. Obviously, Kishiro has written several different volumes in this series (nine!) and while it wouldn't be surprising to find out Cameron and Kalogridis pulled story ideas from more than one of those (two!) Alita more or less sets up a handful of plot strands for the sequel to follow-up on while exploring more than a few facets of the world for (hopeful) sequels to follow-up on as well. And while not opposed to a first movie knowing that it wants to be a part of a franchise, movies still need to tell a complete story in and of themselves separate from whatever might follow them sequentially, movies still need to be a first book and not just a first chapter and Alita definitely feels like a first chapter. This becomes all the more apparent and in turn all the more irritating given that by the end of the film there is no satisfying resolution to the conflict this movie has set-up...and this movie is not short. Rodriguez and Cameron could have very easily removed Ali's character altogether (he's largely wasted here anyway) or simply made Ali the Nova character and easily told more of a complete story given the arc of Alita's character is for her to go on this complete three-sixty from innocence to experience in the discovery of who she was and now is. In doing so, the filmmakers could have shaved off a good fifteen minutes and streamlined the story to feel less scattered while still being sprawling. Rather, the script is more intent on letting the audience know what is to come rather than reeling them in with what is happening which has been left up solely to the visuals, the world-building, and some of the performances. The problem with putting all of one's eggs into the basket of franchise building is convincing the audience they do in fact want more. Unfortunately, Cameron writes and Rodriguez directs like they know exactly what they want and therefore the movie comes off as if it knows exactly what it's doing-there is a real sense assuredness to the property-and yet it can't help but to struggles to get the audience to invest in this journey due simply to the fact the ambition of the storytelling isn't on par with the ambition of everything else on screen. Within the construction of this future society, the script fails to create something inspiring or enrapturing through this template that we've seen other movies do better and more interesting things through and around.

Alita (Rosa Salazar) confronts a local "Hunter-Warrior" named Zapan (Ed Skrein) in the streets of Iron City.
What elevates the material and makes up for this lack of storytelling ambition is the central performance of Salazar though, who brings a joy, wonder, and wide-eyed innocence to Alita that wasn't necessarily expected. Based on the title alone one might think this character to be a hardened soldier with some kind of amnesia along the lines of Jason Bourne who is stoic and trying to piece together the past so as to eventually find whoever disregarded him in the first place, but in waking up to the scenario of the caring Dr. Ido who provides this warm and caring environment that juxtaposes the rest of Iron City allows for Alita, who is a blank slate at the beginning of the movie, to react respond with this very curious and pleasant personality. Alita wants to learn, she wants to interact and engage, and is interested in all of these different facets that Dr. Ido and Hugo introduce her to. And though this is a performance capture performance it is absolutely a genuine performance that could not have been created in a computer without Salazar both literally and figuratively going through these motions to give the animators what they need to create the most photo-realistic character to ever grace the screen; it never feeling as if Alita's not truly interacting with the people or places around her. Despite the shortcomings of the plot overall, the film does do really well to make the titular character the heart of the film. This is something Rodriguez has always excelled at and more so than Cameron as of late as both filmmakers are innovators in their own right, but Rodriguez has always tried more to challenge the traditional format of cinema while Cameron is keen on pushing the technological boundaries; Rodriguez the more whimsical and Cameron the more analytical, this mixing and blending of styles does well to create this unexpected balance of solid science fiction with strong fantastical elements all of which reflect strongest in the performance of Salazar, the appeal of the main character, and the environments they've built. Waltz is also strong here even if he isn't necessarily stretching his acting chops too much and while wanting to like the Hugo character his and Alita's journey together still feels like something out of nineties teen melodrama. Johnson isn't a bad actor, but his presence doesn't feel congruent with this world. It also doesn't help that Hugo and Alita's relationship moves too quickly, especially with where the film ultimately goes and how it so easily takes for granted the ramifications of said relationship.

This appeal of the central character counts for a lot though, and when paired with the visual scope of what has been accomplished here it's difficult not to forgive many of the shortcomings. The action scenes in particular are very hard-hitting for a PG-13 film, but they are also very clean, well-staged, and clearly filmed in a way that the audience feels they can experience the full breadth of the situations and are not just being thrown to the wolves and being forced to put together who is where and what is happening. No, Rodriguez is very deliberate with his action and while the motorball stuff may lean a little too heavily into the reliable world of CGI the majority of the film is a grounded mesh of practical sets and stunts along with the abundance of unbelievable special effects-the greatest of which is Alita herself. And so, while this first Alita (and I genuinely hope there are more of these) is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination it does still takes some bad ideas and run with them. Fortunately, there is enough to like and enjoy here to warrant more as well as taking into consideration the admission that there is more to tell paired with the audience knowing there is a better, more full story to be told within the confines of this world and with these characters.

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