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Family Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel (PG-13)

Anime adaptation ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ fails to build a sci-fi world to match its visuals.

Kernel Rating: 2.5 (2.5 out of 5)

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 122 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This adaptation of a popular anime series ‘Gunnm’ takes place in a dystopian future version of our world in which humans live alongside cyborgs, and so there are a number of sci-fi elements that may be too mature for younger viewers, including humans receiving robot bodies, having their brains and spines transferred between host bodies, and being harvested for parts. Bounty hunters track down, attack, capture, and kill targets, and characters are dismembered and decapitated; you see a character’s organs harvested after their death; and a dog is killed offscreen. There is a love story between two teenagers, including some kissing; some cursing and slurs used against humans and cyborgs both; memories of a war in which many people died; and a violent game in which players aim to kill one another.

By Roxana Hadadi

The success of an ambitious sci-fi film is tied to how successful it is in world-building its reality and its characters, and “Alita: Battle Angel”—like last year’s “Ready Player One”—is another big swing from decorated filmmakers who care more for delivering cutting-edge CGI visuals than crafting a narrative worth being interested in.

AlitaBattleAngel1ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewDirector Robert Rodriguez and co-writer James Cameron have described “Alita,” a big-screen adaptation of the popular Japanese manga series “Gunnm,” as a coming-of-age story set against a dystopian future. That is somewhat true: The cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar, of “Maze Runner: The Death Cure”) is first given the body of a young girl, and then is aged up to a teenager, and finally a young adult woman, and we see her progress throughout the film.

But nothing that happens in “Alita” ever feels like it is distinctly from this female character’s point of view. For young girl viewers, “Alita” may not feel particularly inspirational or relatable. The movie doesn’t ever really get inside its young protagonist’s head, so while its visuals are sometimes impressive—fight sequences that include Alita twirling and kicking against far larger opponents, and a violent sport that depicts contestants whizzing around on rollerblades and trying to kill each other—you may not feel much emotional investment.

“Alita: Battle Angel” is set in the year 2563, 300 years after a war called “The Fall,” in which an alien force attacked the prestigious sky cities that existed around Earth. Only one sky city, Zalem, still remains, housing the most elite individuals left alive, while most everyone else lives underneath, in Iron City. It’s crowded, it’s dirty, there seems to be no governing body and no police force, and most humans are enhanced with robotic limbs to help them cope with the difficulty of building a life.

In an Iron City scrapyard, the doctor and bounty hunter Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, of “Spectre”) finds the head and torso of a cyborg, takes it home, and attaches it to the cyborg body he had built for his daughter, who has since dead. Ido also gives the cyborg the name his daughter had: Alita. When Alita awakes, she has no memory of who she was before, and is amazed at the world around her—and enthralled with the human boy Hugo (Keean Johnson), who teaches her the basics of the extremely violent game Motorball. A sport that everyone in Iron City is obsessed with, Motorball is one of the only opportunities for people to move upward to Zalem: If you can be the final champion of the sport, whizzing around on skates and scoring the most points and killing as many competitors as you need to, you can go the sky city above and lead a wealthy, leisurely life.

But Ido doesn’t want Alita to play Motorball or be involved with Hugo; there is so much violence in the world that he wants to protect her from, including people in Iron City who are curious about who she is and where she came from. And at the same time, Alita is beginning to remember who she is, and the memories she’s having hint at secrets and conspiracies that have long been hidden from the citizens of Iron City.

Salazar effectively conveys a character who undergoes a journey of self-discovery, but there are many elements throughout “Alita: Battle Angel” that prioritize the feelings and actions of male characters in her life over her own. She tries to sell a part of her body to support Hugo, and that scene is played as a selfless act of love, not as a sacrifice she shouldn’t have to make. At another point, it’s revealed that Ido knew who Alita was before assigning her the body of his dead daughter, and that he purposefully infantilized her to fill a void in his life—and yet Ido is still portrayed a heroic figure. For a film that is meant to be about a female character growing into herself, “Battle Angel” denies Alita agency again and again.

If you put all that aside, perhaps the visuals of “Alita: Battle Angel” may be worth it, but they are quite mature for younger viewers. And like so many other recent sci-fi adaptations, from “Ready Player One” to “The Darkest Minds,” the majority of this film’s plot is rendered moot with a last-second reveal that sets up a sequel. That choice, plus all the ways this film disservices its protagonist, makes “Alita: Battle Angel” feel like a missed cinematic opportunity instead of a bold new vision for the sci-fi genre.

 Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.   

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