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Screen Themes: Alita: Battle Angel vs The Umbrella Academy

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Alita: Battle Angel (2019) and the Umbrella Academy (2019).

As comic book superheroes and villains dominate screens big and small, entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out two long-awaited releases, manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel and emo-inspired The Umbrella Academy.

Alita: Battle Angel

Directed by Robert Rodriguez (2019)

I’m going to be honest and reveal that I haven’t read a lot of the original Alita: Battle Angel manga. Still, I imagine that this holds true for around 90% of the people who go to see this movie, so it’s probably better that I don’t spend half this review nerding out over a bunch of minor changes that nobody else is going to notice.

Set in a dystopian future (is there any other kind?) Alita tells the tale of cyborg doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a backstreet mechanic who finds the discarded upper-body of an advanced fighting cyborg and rebuilds her using the body of his deceased daughter, Alita. Played by Rosa Salazar under some occasionally off-putting CGI, Alita is an innocent who quickly gets caught up in the dangerous world of Motorball, which is exactly like 1975’s Rollerball but with motorized skates.  

Alita was originally meant to be directed by James Cameron, and a number of critics have expressed a desire to see his original vision. I do not share this desire, as I still have PTSD-like flashbacks from the shiny garbage fire that was Avatar. It must be said that Desperado director Robert Rodriguez is far from his best on Alita, but that may be due to the weak script and Cameron’s influence than his directorial choices.

The main problem with Alita is the fact that it doesn’t have a third act. Clearly designed to be the first movie in a franchise, Alita is all set up and no payoff, with the last minute reveal of uber-bad guy Nova (Ed Norton with white hair) falls flat. Considering the box office performance of Alita so far, a sequel is by no means guaranteed, which may impact your desire to see this movie.

The Umbrella Academy 

Developed by Steve Blackman & Jeremy Slater (2019)

Based on the comic book series by Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance, The Umbrella Academy was always going to be tough to translate to TV. Both series tell the tale of seven children, all born on the same day to mothers who previously showed no signs of pregnancy. In the comic, this event was sparked by a finishing move in a cosmic wrestling match, but the TV series has chosen to downplay the supernatural elements, which seems slightly odd in a show about superheroes.

A nervy Ellen Page plays the ostensible lead Vanya, the Number 7 child who grew up believing that she had no powers, an outcast from her adoptive family. Page is joined by a bunch of actors that you might recognize from other genre shows; man-mountain Luther is played by Tom Hopper (Dickon Tarley from Game of Thrones), drug-addled Klaus is played by Robert Sheehan from Misfits, while masked assassin Cha-Cha is played by R&B singer Mary J. Blige, who also appears in the TV remake of self-aware horror flick Scream.

Heavily influenced by Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol(also now a TV series), The Umbrella Academy may well be the most emo TV series ever made. Every one of the main characters is an outcast of some kind, even successful actress Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) who has lost custody of her daughter after using her power to control minds. Fortunately, just when the whining threatens to become overwhelming, the series erupts into over-the-top violence and deliberate weirdness, which is a lot of fun.

Since the launch of the series, a number of comic book fans have come out and said that the TV series is a weak imitation of the source material. While this may or may not be true (I’ve just bought the trade paperbacks to see for myself) the fact remains that The Umbrella Academy is worth a watch if you’re a fan of superheroes or weirdness. Or both, I suppose.

The Verdict

If you’re the sort of person who is happy to switch off their brain and enjoy some big CGI action for two hours, then Alita might amuse you. But don’t go in expecting to watch a whole movie. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of more offbeat fare, check out a couple of episodes of The Umbrella Academy. You might hate it, but at least it tells a coherent story…

Alita: Battle Angel: 5/10

The Umbrella Academy: 7/10

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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