As Hollywood continues its hunt for franchise kickstarters, studios have gravitated toward too-big-to-fail epics, trending toward fewer movies made at higher budgets. Usually, this yields some product with a personality manicured in the name of broad appeal. But sometimes something odd sneaks through the system when people trusted with millions of dollars spend them irresponsibly. This year, that vision comes in the form of “Alita: Battle Angel,” an unwieldy, albeit thrilling, sci-fi epic from director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer and producer James Cameron.
Salvaged from a scrapyard by the kindly Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), Alita (Rosa Salazar) awakens without any memory of her past but with an enthusiasm for life. Taking to the streets of Iron City, her life as a teenage robot consists of friendly Motorball skirmishes with other teens and exercising a steadfast impulse to protect those who can’t protect themselves. After surviving an attempted assassination, Alita discovers that fragments of her memory return to her whenever she’s in combat — a fact that both intrigues and frightens her. With the help of Dr. Ido and her budding squeeze Hugo (Keean Johnson), she adopts the vigilante lifestyle of the bounty-hunting body, the Hunter Warriors, to discover who she was.
Now, since he’s just been mentioned, it’s best to get this out of the way quickly. Alita’s love interest Hugo is an absolute wet blanket, the kind of character you actively wish would get killed just so the story could be free of his influence. His monotone Disney Channel-isms impede about half of the movie, mucking up the pacing most destructively in the home stretch. “You are more human than anyone I know,” Hugo insists to Alita, practically admitting his own sterility in the process. It’s a tin-eared line of dialogue, one of many in the script, and yet it’s positively true. Break up with your boyfriend, Alita, we’re bored.
Whatever the exact mixture of Salazar’s captivating physicality and Weta Digital’s VFX wizardry is, their collaboration has yielded a genuinely breathtaking lead performance. Alita’s spindly acrobatics dodging spiky tentacles or sucker-punching cyborgs are dazzling. But it’s her facial tics and, yes, those damn big eyes during the movie’s most intimate, despairing moments that bring the character into flesh and blood. Alita isn’t just one of the most convincing special effects in any mega-budget movie; she’s also one of the most charismatic and sincere protagonists to grace one in years.
Such a peculiarly rendered heroine needs to occupy a vibrant, immersive world in order to fully sell the illusion. Iron City is brought to life by tactile sets that use CG as garnish rather than the main dish. It’s so captivating that, at times, the craft can be too romantic. Iron City is ostensibly a dilapidated metropolis ridden with poverty and crime, yet the days are always sunny and the rooftops look like they were made to be rollerbladed across.
Both the film’s imaginative verve and technical precision reach their peak whenever Alita enters the fray. The slam-bang action evokes anime in its expressive agility, as well as its indulgent tendency to linger on the heaviest impacts. Rodriguez gets to exercise his penchant for demented design during these combat scenes, serving up unsightly metallic monstrosities to be sliced and diced and dismembered piece by piece. But the most thrilling kinetics arrive when Alita dips her feet into professional Motorball, a blood sport that promises its champion ascension to Zalem, the sequel-teasing and sinister utopia perched directly above Iron City. And let’s not even get into the moon-war glimpsed through Alita’s flashbacks.
What sets “Alita: Battle Angel” apart from the usual wrinkle-free, made-by-committee twaddle is its conviction. As rich as its images are, there’s a pervasive suggestion of a world that continues outside the borders of its narrative. It’s an effect achieved not through asinine gestures toward a “cinematic universe,” but by the virtues of the film’s unfaltering eye that never looks away from its vision to wink. That the movie spends a little too much time setting up a franchise (one that probably won’t happen considering box office predictions and the imminent, dystopian Disney-Fox merger) is generally forgivable, as every tease of things around the corner is always anchored to the curiosity of Alita herself.
Cameron has made several masterpieces espousing a belief in the spiritual connection between mankind and technology. This isn’t one of them, loaded with sleepy supporting performances and cloying sentimentality — but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling. Alita is a visual effect, as are the movies, and “Battle Angel” thrives off the allure and divinity of both. “It’s all or nothing with me. This is who I am,” Alita declares when her vigilance is questioned. Here, Cameron offers a tour of what the blockbuster landscape could look like under his image, warts and all. That comes with some boring boy problems, but that also means the irritating greaser sweetheart at least rides a colossal motorized unicycle.