Movie review: “Alita: Battle Angel” bedazzles, and that’s about it

TMN movie critic Gordon McPhereson gives this film 3/5 eyeballs.

“Alita: Battle Angel,” based on the Japanese manga Battle Angel Alita, showcases breathtaking visuals and memorable action sequences, but it also takes itself way too seriously. For every imaginative flourish, there are scenes of unintentional hilarity — but this tonal inconsistency isn’t necessarily to the film’s detriment.

The year is 2563. Earth has been devastated after The Fall — a poorly explained war with class division consequences. In a grimy, crime-ridden metropolis called Iron City, Ido, played by Christoph Waltz, finds the head of a disembodied cyborg named Alita, played by Rosa Salazar, and takes her under his wing. Unfortunately, motion-captured Alita doesn’t remember any of her past, but she can decapitate cyborgs pretty easily from the get-go. Alita is eventually hunted by bounty hunters and overlords, led by a miscast Mahershala Ali, who will stop at nothing to disassemble her. She also falls in love with slick-haired pretty boy Hugo, played by Keean Johnson, in a romance that snugly fits in with other young adult cringe fests. As Alita learns more about her past and herself, often during violent confrontations, she fights for the survival of her newfound family and the future of Iron City.

Suffice to say, viewers shouldn’t watch “Alita: Battle Angel” for a compelling story, well-written dialogue or memorable characters. They should, on the other hand, tune in for the staggeringly detailed worldbuilding and visceral, well-choreographed action.

It’s wonderful how advanced visual effects have become nowadays. Though relying heavily on CGI and borrowing much from the “Blade Runner” films, Robert Rodriguez crafts an impressive world of cyborgs, thieves, power-hungry ganglords, empowered female characters and high-stakes roller derby. It’s a pleasure just to see what bizarre sight will come next.

Salazar also gives a highly emotive, convincing performance as Alita. Though still residing in the uncanny valley, the impressive wizardry bringing Alita to life is impossible to dismiss, even though her character’s depth leaves much to be desired. The film’s central themes, including the differences between humans and cyborgs and the consequences of wealth disparity, aren’t anything science-fiction fans haven’t seen before, and Alita herself doesn’t have the personality or edge to stand out as especially memorable.

At least the action sequences, filled with smooth camerawork, wild acrobatics and over the top weapons, are satisfying. There’s always something new up Rodriguez’s sleeve, even occasionally shocking violence. In fact, “Alita: Battle Angel” is entirely worth seeing in theaters for this visual bombast alone. Everything else be damned.

The dialogue, full of technical babble, painful cliches and jaw-droppingly braindead remarks, is nevertheless amusing, and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious, all the way through. The actors, especially Waltz, deliver their lines with a straight-faced seriousness that’s difficult to take seriously. The film’s “romantic” moments also fall flat — why does Alita care so much about pretty boy Hugo in the first place?

It’s therefore surprising that I enjoyed “Alita: Battle Angel” from start to finish. Rodriguez’s colorful vision of the future is quite the sight to behold, even though most storytelling elements appear scavenged from numerous other, better science-fiction works.