“Alita: Battle Angel” has extraordinary action scenes and brilliant special effects that almost make the price of admission worth it. Unfortunately, this is an exhaustingly lame film, one with a concept alluring enough to grab your attention, but nothing on the hook to keep it.
From the opening credits the viewer is thrust into a future where almost everybody has robotic appendages and limbs. The upper-class live in a giant city floating above a rotting society, dominated by the world’s strongest warrior-bots to keep the destitute out.
Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz, who always seems to be slumming it when he isn’t collaborating with Quentin Tarantino) finds the core of an ancient battle soldier while fishing around a junkyard. He attaches it to a powerful cyborg body, naming it Alita, letting us know soon after that the body he has given Alita was meant for his deceased daughter (the film goes in weird, creepy places and never seems to realize it).
But creepy Dr. Ido isn’t the only issue here. The real problem is that the lower-class city is ruled by Vector (Mahershala Ali, deprived of all charisma), who is not only using bootleg, hacked-off cyborg parts to enhance his cronies, but is also sleeping with Ido’s ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly, looking just as bored as Waltz and Ali; how does a film cast three Oscar-winning actors and not give them anything real to do?).
To keep the restless civilians amused, Vector stages a cyborg roller derby that is basically Quidditch mixed with BattleBots and run through a giant anime filter. Alita thinks it looks fun. Noise and chaos ensues.
None of the story, written by James Cameron (who keeps promising us “Avatar” sequels that we keep not getting) and Laeta Kalogridis, is interesting. Not even the romantic subplot between Alita and her spineless boyfriend Hugo (Keean Johnson) can bring life to a narrative that is only there so the visual effects crew could work their magic around it.
The design and look of Alita is the best part of the film. Rosa Salazar (“Bird Box”) does the voice and motion capture for Alita (a painstakingly designed animated character), and she is a joy to watch. Even though Salazar’s voice doesn’t always click with Alita’s movements (sometimes one is more expressive than the other), her interactions with her environment and the other human characters are flawless. The visual effects team (some of whom worked on “Avatar” and “The Avengers”) masterfully show Alita’s physicality, sensitivity, and brutality, finding a balance between anime-character and human-being mannerisms that aren’t creepy like “The Polar Express”, but unique and fun.
The effects department also helps director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”, “Machete”) choreograph the CG-heavy action with clarity, making it infinitely more memorable than the headache-inducing fight sequences you get from movies like “Transformers”. The fighting in “Alita: Battle Angel” is actually exciting, each confrontation starting as wrestling matches that quickly turn into murderous Rock 'Em Sock 'Em smackdowns.
This is the largest production Rodriguez has ever been given to work with, and his determination to make every penny of the $170,000,000 budget count is admirable.
So, with all of that said, the intense visual life and kickass fight scenes of this film should be enough to convince a skeptical viewer to buy a ticket, right?
That’s the painful thing about this: the only way this film should be seen is on the big-screen in 3D, but the film isn’t worth your time. This is just a big, flashy misfire with a good heart but zero brain.
All the parts and pieces of “Alita: Battle Angel”, despite their shininess and expensive allure, are ultimately hollow. The effects and design are nothing short of incredible, but because all of the risks were taken for the visuals, none were leftover for a worthwhile story.