The heavenly visuals can’t compensate for a screenplay that languishes in limbo in Alita: Battle Angel, a dystopian adventure that amounts to a high-concept exercise in spectacle over substance.
This big-screen adaptation of the Japanese manga by Yukito Kishiro boasts an ambitious science-fiction scope and an impressive behind-the-scenes pedigree, including the involvement of James Cameron. However, it generally lacks emotional depth and complexity beneath its surface thrills, slick gadgetry, cool weapons, and notoriously big-eyed protagonist.
The story is set 500 years in the future, after Earth was ravaged by an unexplained catastrophic war. Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg with human characteristics whose scientist creator, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), named his latest robotic creation after his late daughter.
Their relationship becomes complicated as Alita develops the characteristics of a human teenager complete with a boyfriend (Keean Johnson) while coming to terms with some secrets about her past as a female bounty hunter.
The film’s most exciting sequences revolve around a game called “motorball,” an intense competition that resembles a hybrid between basketball and roller derby, in which our tough-minded heroine proves tenaciously adept.
That also leads to Alita embracing her heroic calling and its associated dangers. She explores her potential as a lethal warrior following encounters with motorball’s overseer, the duplicitous Vector (Mahershala Ali), and his alleged lover (Jennifer Connelly), who happens to be Ido’s ex-wife and might hold the key to an evil empire.
The muddled screenplay by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) gradually fills in some contextual details for its character and setting, with the action picking up considerably after a dark first hour heavy on exposition.
Within its cyberpunk milieu, Alita: Battle Angel adopts a video-game mentality with a generic nod to female empowerment that waters down the source material for mainstream consumption.
As directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), the film is quite a technical achievement, with visually stunning 3D cinematography and a meticulously rendered futuristic landscape. It seamlessly blends live action with motion-capture animation and special effects.
Unfortunately, this latest attempt to ride the wave of superhero origin stories is little more than a 21st century coming-of-age story in a 26th century setting, which seems a dubious bet as a legitimate franchise starter in an oversaturated marketplace.