There’s not a lot below the surface of “Alita: Battle Angel,” mostly because it puts everything it has front and center. For what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in visceral action, vivid world-building, and sci-fi melodrama.
This long-gestating project – a labor of love for co-writer/producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez that the former has pursued off-and-on for roughly 15 years – is an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga series and its one-shot animated video spin-offs. It hews close to the source material, sometimes biting off more plot detail than one movie can chew and winds up overstuffed in its attempt to set up a sequel or two.
The title heroine (played by Rosa Salazar via motion capture) is a cyborg teenager whose shattered body is rescued from a scrapyard by cyber-physician Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) and reassembled. The year is 2563, and the world is a Metropolis-esque one of the haves who live in Zalem, the last of the planet’s floating high-tech cities, and have-nots toiling below in the squalor of Iron City and dreaming of reaching the utopia overhead. We see very little of the former, lending it an air of mystery and speculation essential to the plot; the latter is a rough-and-tumble techno-ghetto populated by working stiffs and scoundrels, many of whom have cybernetic upgrades, implants, and replacement parts.
Alita has no memory of her previous life (she may even be hundreds of years old, predating the war that ravaged the planet), but her crush on local street rat Hugo (Keean Johnson) and increasing interest in the local bounty hunters and Motorball tournaments (think “BattleBots” meets “Rollerball”) sparks a few cryptic flashbacks and draws the interest of shady promoter Vector (Mahershala Ali) and fallen roboticist Chiren (Jennifer Connelly).
Alita’s unusually big, doll-like eyes are a callback to the source material, though in CGI form she looks more like a Margaret Keane painting in 3-D. She looks real though, easing out of the uncanny valley after a few minutes thanks in part to Cameron’s cutting-edge tech, but mostly due to Salazar’s energetic, earnest performance. When it is opposite Waltz’s warmth as a conflicted father-figure, a quirky coming-of-age story emerges.
Still, “Alita: Battle Angel” could use a little more heart and soul to balance out its admittedly eye-popping spectacle. Ostensibly a female empowerment movie, it’s feminism is a mixed bag. Alita is presented as a stereotypical teenage girl (albeit one in a kill-bot body) whose decisions are often driven by a need to please the men in her life, be it the over-protective Dyson or teen crush Hugo (to whom she literally offers her heart in an awkward sequence). It rings false at times, thought Battle Angel‘s heroine is treated with respect and maturity. Rather than a objectified victim, Alita has agency more often than not, and the movie has enough go-for-broke energy to match her determination.