“Alita: Battle Angel” – The new “Avatar”?

By Aaron Reynolds

3 out of 5 Stars

There are certain films that arrive every so often and are like an important date in the earth’s history. You simply remember when and where you were when you saw the movie. For many there are few instant classics in the 21st century (apologies to “The Dark Knight”) yet one that generally makes everyone’s list is “Avatar.”

The 2009 sci-fi adventure was truly worthy of the title “epic,” as it single-handedly brought on the modern phenomenon of 3D movies and still ranks as the highest-grossing film ever at the box office, with over $2.7 billion worldwide.

Hollywood studios have been scrambling for years now trying to un-tap the next “Avatar,” and the gold rush appears more craved as time passes. “Avatar” will celebrate its 10th anniversary later this year, and still nothing has come close to the insane production value and quality futuristic story of the masterpiece.

“Alita: Battle Angel” is the latest stab at an “Avatar”-esque cinematic experience, yet still not quite worthy.

The film is a long time in the making and, believe it or not, actually has origins prior to the release of “Avatar.” The project was originally announced in 2003, yet a title with another name (hint, it begins with an ‘a’) diverted James Cameron’s attention for the better part of a decade and a half.

The acclaimed writer/director finally finished the script for “Alita: Battle Angel” with co-writer Laeta Kalogridis, and it sat in what the industry defines as “development hell” for years before finally getting a director in Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado,” “Machete”) in 2016.

These kinds of pre-production delays are rarely a solid indicator for a good movie, yet the perseverance has finally paid off as “Alita: Battle Angel” recently arrived at theaters.

The picture has obvious comparisons to “Avatar” that go beyond James Cameron’s connection to both films. It is also a highly stylistic and enthralling visual spectacle with a cutting-edge story that is a part of the American “cyberpunk” subgenre of science-fiction.

It tells the tale of Alita (Rosa Salazar), a cyborg who awakens with no memory of who she is in a future world where no one is recognizable. Alita receives care from a doctor (Christoph Waltz) who discovers there is a heart and soul of an extraordinary young woman trapped under the shell of the abandoned cyborg.

Alita also takes up a friendship with Hugo (Keenan Johnson), who offers to help trigger memories of her past. However, it is not until the corrupt forces that run Iron City come after Alita that she unlocks clues about her past and unleashes unique fighting abilities to help save a world she has grown to love.

Though “Alita: Battle Angel” presents the kind of jaw-dropping action sequences and visual effects that are clearly Cameron-esque, the story suffers from uncertainty. Based on a manga series called “Gunnm,” director Robert Rodriguez banks on audiences being familiar with the backstory prior to sitting down for two hours of “Alita,” and that’s where things get jumbled.

Needless to say, the story is a little muddled, and halfway through it becomes apparent “Alita” is already trying to set itself up for a sequel. There is nothing wrong with that in our Hollywood sequel-driven climate, but “Alita” is a little too shameless about it. Furthermore, it tends to lose the point of first establishing a good foundation for the subsequent installments.

The film is very well-cast, with the outstanding Christoph Waltz working with Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, along with the undervalued Rosa Salazar – though all of them are ill-equipped to ride along with such a choppy narrative.

“Alita: Battle Angel” puts together a fantastic new world, incredible visuals, and talented actors, yet fails the most important detail of them all – a crisp and compelling story that made “Avatar” so beloved.

It’s not a bad film, but clearly not the next “Avatar.”

 

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