Alita: Battle Angel perpetually feels like it's on the cusp of being great, without ever quite getting there. The film is a collaboration between director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and co-writer/co-producer James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic). These are people who know how to deliver a satisfying, blow-your-mind experience. They certainly shoot for the stars, which is admirable. Having too many plot threads dulls the impact, though.
The story takes place in the year 2563. A devastating war has taken place, leaving Earth in a state of wreckage. A wealthy city in the sky, Zalem, tosses refuge down to the scrapyard known as Iron City. Scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) rummages through the waste, finding the head of a deactivated female cyborg, her brain intact. Ido takes her to his lab, where he fuses her head onto a cyborg body and brings her back to life. This is the rebirth of Alita (Rosa Salazar). She has no memory of the past, although it quickly becomes clear that she somehow has ties to Zalem. The key to figuring out the mystery might lie in a brutal sport known as motorball, which is kind of a cross between roller derby and randomly murdering people.
Here's where things get dicey. Alita's journey of self-discovery comes with an abundance of supporting characters, all of whom have their own subplot (or mini-subplot). Mahershala Ali plays Vector, a shady businessman who rigs motorball competitions, and Jennifer Connelly is Chiren, Dr. Ido's ex-wife who has somehow fallen in with Vector. There's a cyborg bounty hunter, Zapan (Ed Skrein), who is trying to hunt Alita down, as well as a cyborg assassin named Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) trying to do essentially the same. The latter works for Nova, a scientist on Zalem who has the ability to transfer his consciousness to others.
The weakest element involves Hugo (Keean Johnson), the young man who teaches Alita how to play motorball and eventually becomes her love interest. A cyborg and a human falling in love has possibilities, but Alita: Battle Angel treats it as little more than an obligatory attempt to shove in some sort of emotional angle. Every time Hugo and Alita start getting all lovey-dovey with each other, it's as though Twilight has momentarily invaded the film.
In fairness, this is not a case where many different elements feel disconnected from one another. Alita: Battle Angel connects all of them – perhaps a little too much. By having so many things going on simultaneously, none really get the time they need to reach their potential. Paring down the number of factors that help Alita mentally reclaim her past and then developing them more fully would have been preferable. So much unfolding at once just makes the movie overstuffed. As soon as you start to get into the rhythm of one part, the picture leaps to another.
Some undoubtedly admirable qualities help mitigate the problem. The performances are good all around, and there are some solid action scenes, most notably a thrilling motorball game in the third act. The visual effects in that sequence are fantastic, to the point where a spinoff movie purely about the world of motorball seems like a decent idea. CGI used to create Alita, meanwhile, is the most sophisticated of its kind we've seen to date. She looks like Rosa Salazar, but has larger-than-normal eyes and a cyborg body. (Imagine a more attractive version of those fugly Precious Moments figures.) By and large, it's easy to forget this is a computer-generated character because she's seamlessly integrated into everything else.
Salazar (from TV's Parenthood and the theatrical Maze Runner series) is one to watch. There is every indication from her performance that she can carry a movie. It's hard not to want more of her and less of other stuff, though. Alita: Battle Angel tries to take an epic approach to telling what is fundamentally a personal story. Not an impossible task, except that the mixture is slightly off in this case.
out of 4
Alita: Battle Angel is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.