Ria is an avid anime and sci-fi fan who loves gushing about her latest favorite shows.
Though Hollywood adaptations of anime and manga tend to receive mixed reviews, reviews for Alita: Battle Angel are generally solid. Producer James Cameron has been personally invested in the project for over a decade now, and with director Robert Rodriguez at the helm, the hard work seems to have paid off.
There are many sci-fi and fantasy films out there that have tried to create action-packed yet emotionally-charged stories, and many have failed spectacularly. A number even tried to adapt well-loved Japanese anime and manga franchises; Netflix's Death Note is the most recent example that drew fans' ire, and Paramount and DreamWorks' Ghost in the Shell didn't fare much better.
If you're looking for sci-fi and fantasy films that manage to pair emotional nuance and a healthy dose of action, here are 10 recommendations.
Ghost in the Shell
No, not the 2017 live-action - the original Ghost in the Shell is the way to go for sci-fi fans. This 1995 animated film eventually inspired The Matrix and countless other sci-fi films.
The premise is similar to the live-action film: a cybernetic cop has to deal with criminals and internal politics while wrestling with what it means to be human. Fortunately, the original Ghost in the Shell covers all of this much more convincingly and memorably than the Hollywood knock-off.
A sequel of sorts called Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was well-received, and a 2006 installment titled Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Solid State Society is also an excellent, thought-provoking film. There are about a half-dozen other TV and movie adaptations of the original concept, the most recent being Ghost in the Shell: Arise, which isn't as good.
Like Alita, Akira focuses on a young protagonist trying to make his way in a violent, dystopian sci-fi setting. However, Akira ends up being significantly more grisly and disturbing than Alita appears to be; bullet-riddled corpses, mutating humans, and other gross and gory details are on full display throughout the film's two-hour runtime. It doesn't help that the story is about actual human bodies instead of cyborg ones.
That said, though, Akira is a true classic that carries just enough emotional depth to make it worth watching through the gratuitous violence. The characters' hopes and struggles are addressed, and are well-written enough to make the film heart-wrenching at times.
Ex Machina explores questions of artificial intelligence and sentience, including whether or not humans have the right to control robots. Main character Caleb is chosen to assist a tech CEO in testing a sentient robot, but of course, not everything is as simple as it seems. The film received rave reviews, despite struggling to get U.S. distribution and only grossing $36 million at the box office. It won dozens of awards and was even nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
Though the film focuses far less on action than Alita or similar sci-fi films do, it's a great choice for anyone wanting a suspenseful look at how robots could be used and abused in society.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Hopefully everyone who's reading this has already seen Mad Max: Fury Road. If not, now's the time! This dystopian sci-fi action film does justice to its premise, and offers a high-octane adventure that still manages to be believable.
Like Alita, Fury Road has a healthy dose of strong but well-rounded female characters. Furiosa is far from being an innocent teenager, so her development is much different than Alita's. You can also go back and watch the original Mad Max trilogy, which also has some great characters throughout the series, but the stories are a little more dated.
Lucy offers a much darker and brutal take on the woman-with-advanced-powers trope, and for large chunks of the film, it's not much more than another action-thriller. At times, though, it offers some poignant moments of reflection as Scarlet Johansson's titular character transforms into something she never asked to be. Morgan Freeman's role also adds to the drama, though his character is somewhat flat.
The premise is simple, but well-executed: Lucy is forced to smuggle drugs in her stomach, and when the bag leaks, her full human potential begins to be unlocked. This realistic take on "superhuman" abilities make for exciting action, so if nothing else, Lucy provides a thrilling ride with a little more substance than most sci-fi fare.
X-Men: First Class
Though some fans hold X2: X-Men United in higher regard, X-Men: First Class has a younger group of characters that will resonate with fans of Alita. Even if you don't normally care for superhero movies, First Class is worth a look, as it offers a nuanced look at how power can corrupt and divide. You don't need any prior knowledge of the X-Men universe to understand the story, either.
Professor Xavier's character has ideals, but never becomes too idealistic as he tries to shelter and nurture his young proteges. As he and Magneto struggle to find a way to stop the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rookie mutants grow into their own selves. The result is a compelling film that's better than most other installments in the franchise.
On the other end of the X-Men timeline, we have Logan, which stars Hugh Jackman as an old and grizzled Wolverine. He's joined by a young mutant named Laura, who has similar powers to his and is on the run from the people who made her. The story's near-future setting results in a painfully realistic tale, and is a refreshing departure from stories of superheros who are still young and strong.
Laura's character unfortunately doesn't get much development, but her arc is still compelling. Logan and Professor X both have changed enough to keep viewers guessing as to what they'll do next. This installment is a little harder to jump into if you're completely unfamiliar with the X-Men universe, but you can probably keep up even if it's been a few years since you've watched other X-Men movies.
Blade Runner has to be included on this list, if only because of its massive influence on the sci-fi movie genre. It shares some thematic ties with Alita, and its setting is certainly similar, but that's where the commonalities seem to end. Blade Runner features Harrison Ford as a bounty hunter in a dystopian world where androids called replicants are treated as labor and denied human rights. Naturally, this leads to conflict and violence.
Hopefully you've already seen the film, but it's worth re-watching, if only to appreciate the impact it made on the other movies on this list. The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, also received solid reviews, and still has Harrison Ford as a lead character despite being made 35 years after the original!
Though the animation on the 2004 Appleseed hasn’t aged well, it’s a fairly well-executed story with an interesting premise. The main character’s boyfriend has been turned into a cyborg after surviving World War III, and it doesn’t take long for the pair to get thrown into a new conflict.
There’s also a 1988 movie, but that version can be ignored in favor of the newer films, which include the Appleseed Ex Machina sequel and the 2014 Appleseed Alpha remake. Unfortunately, none of the films offer much in the way of character development, but the plot and action will make most sci-fi fans happy. There is also a TV series titled Appleseed XIII, but this remake wasn't well-received by fans.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
If you like dramas just as much as you like action movies, A.I. Artificial Intelligence will be right up your alley. This Steven Spielberg film focuses on an android child’s relationship with his human family, and how his family’s failure to accept him never deters him from his mission to become a real boy.
His journey ends up being more much more than your standard feel-good family fare. There are several unexpected emotional punches in addition to typical sci-fi plot twists, and the characters never fall into predictable tropes. In typical Steven Spielberg fashion, the sci-fi settings are imaginative yet believable.