All the expansive world-building in Alita: Battle Angel stands as the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. James Cameron (co-writer/producer) and Robert Rodriguez (director) deliver a sprawling, digital landscape that boggles the mind in both its grandeur and intensive attention to every last visual detail. Story-wise, so much table-setting happens in this movie that it sometimes feels we’re simply getting the prologue to a longer, better story down the road. On its own merit, this Alita balances technical brilliance with grounded performances and genuinely suspenseful action sequences to rate as a solid, big-budget extravaganza.
Based on a manga series by Yukito Kishiro, Alita takes us a few hundred years in the future, where the haggard remnants of humanity hunker in the dusty rubble of ancient cities. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a mechanical surgeon and tinkerer, discovers the body of a cybernetic teenage girl atop a landfill, and takes it on himself to be a sci-fi Gepetto. He names her Alita (Rosa Salazar), and watches over her with a paternal glare. It turns out that Alita is a berserking bad-ass, whose gentle heart destines her for great and powerful things. Her growing prowess draws the ire of a tech-savvy gangster (Mahershala Ali) and his squad of mecha-thugs. Meanwhile, a plucky love interest (Keean Johnson) may have an agenda all his own.
The film’s most dazzling, dizzying set pieces revolve around the game of Motorball, a kind of post-apocalyptic roller-Quidditch that gives Alita a platform to change the world. These sequences harness all of Cameron and Rodriguez’s CGI genius and become immersive and relentlessly exciting. If big, bold sci-fi action is your barrel of monkeys, then Alita is something you’ve got to experience on the biggest screen possible.
None of that would matter a damn without strong performances amidst all the green-screenery. I mean, has Christoph Waltz ever done poorly in a role? His gentle turn as dad to a cyber-daughter anchors the film with some much-needed humanity. As the most memorable villain in a crowded field, Ali covers his evil dialogue with a blanket of satin-smooth coolness. These Oscar-winners notwithstanding, the real standout here is Salazar. Her Alita runs the gamut from sweet and vulnerable to fierce and frightening, sometimes in the same scene.
Unfortunately, the film spins its wheels in the mud by giving us a few scenes from next time. One major actor is teased several times, but given nothing to say. Several story arcs are left hanging, like a piano piece that doesn’t resolve. Alita could’ve been even stronger if it had just focused on one plot at a time. That said, Cameron and Rodriguez create exactly what you’d expect: Two hours of good-not-great escapism, enhanced by some of the most impressive special effects in movie history.
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