'Alita: Battle Angel' Review: A Beautiful but Hollow Shell

The good news is that 'Alita' is a much better movie than it looks. The bad news is everything else.

Moment to moment, Alita: Battle Angel is a thrill. It is sometimes also very dumb. The seamless integration of live-action and CGI is a stunning work of art, especially against a breathtaking vision of cyberpunk dystopia that feels as though a manga artist drew every frame. From one cool action set-piece to the next, it’s easy to buy what Alita is selling, if the crummy dialogue, confused world-building, and maddening, unsatisfying ending don’t get in the way.

A dream project of James Cameron (producer) and the latest directorial effort from Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel is a “live-action” adaptation of Yukito Kishiro 1990 manga Gunnm (Battle Angel Alita was its western title).

Set in the future, 300 years after a cataclysmic war known as “The Fall,” the vast majority of humanity lives down in sprawling, crowded Iron City while the elite live in luxury high above. The rich dump their garbage down to Iron City, and it’s atop a trash mountain that a kind cyborg surgeon, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), finds the intact upper half of a young female android. Upon giving her a new body, he names the amnesiac robot Alita (Rosa Salazar), and she eventually discovers her true identity — that of a deadly weapon used in the war that led to The Fall —while navigating the underbelly of Iron City.

A murderer’s row of Oscar-winning actors, including Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, and one surprise appearance (a three-time nominee who rivals Matt Damon’s Interstellar appearance in shock value) round out the cast as Iron City’s more eccentric, and generally more evil, inhabitants.

So much of the movie’s best moments are because of Salazar, who brings Alita to life, so to speak. Her big CGI eyes, while a baffling creative decision, aren’t intrusive or distracting. In fact, they’re almost her secret weapon. Perhaps its psychology at play, but when coupled with Salazar’s endearing performance, her cherubic eyes garner immediate sympathy from the audience. Through those expressive eyes you see Alita’s naivety and curiosity towards the world and towards herself, and Rodriguez knows how to tell the hell out of that story.

Watching Alita wake up is an almost visceral sensation. Salazar’s expressive face and Rodriguez’s expert directing makes you almost feel the texture of her synthetic skin and limbs as she discovers them, of the oranges and chocolates she eats. It’s a feeling that never goes away, and as the film introduces more cyborgs with bizarre, little details, you “feel” each of their nuance. A bounty hunter, played by Ed Skrein, is all steel but in his face, and I couldn’t take my eyes off his steel facial hair. Submit Alita now for an Oscar in VFX and production design, because wow.

Rodriguez also knows how to direct fun. Motorball, a fictional sport that combines rollerblading, basketball, and rugby, is utterly hypnotic. Like Spider-Man’s wrestling match from the 2002 Sam Raimi movie, I’ll be watching the Motorball scenes on YouTube for years to come.

It’s a good thing the movie knows how to make me feel its surroundings, because unfortunately, it falls short in a lot of other ways. Its uneven script is ridden with problems, from dialogue cliches to a criminally underused Idara Victor as Dr. Ido’s nurse, to a tremendous lack of subtlety — which, ironically, makes Alita: Battle Angel feel like pure anime. At one point, Alita offers her boyfriend (Keenan Johnson) her heart, metaphorically and literally as she rips the thing out of her chest. Also, it can power the entire city for hundreds of years, which is a big detail that never pays off.

Alita Battle Angel
'Alita: Battle Angel' is a much better movie than its marketing implies, but its merits don't match up to its ambitions.

As the film lagged on, I grew frustrated at its superficially beautiful world. At first glance, Iron City is whatever city Ghost in the Shell desperately wanted to be: colorful, diverse, and exploding with life. Iron City’s alleys and street corners are more interesting than the story they frame. But as that story unfolds, Iron City becomes more hollow.

The film wastes what should have been a timely haves/have nots metaphor, in which an invisible elite let the poor wallow in their filth and bread and circuses. (Professional Motorball is vicious. In a smarter film, you would see activists protesting the barbarism of cyborgs killing each other for sport.) Nor is Alita about cyborg rights, another potential theme the film flirts with without properly following through.

In the end, Alita is a beautiful picture with a great protagonist in an undercooked story that is ultimately about a girl bot’s revenge over her own discarding. Her only motivation becomes getting the bad guys because of her boyfriend, and we’re meant to wait for a sequel to even get that meager payoff. Alita: Battle Angel is a movie with so much going for it, but is mostly just a shell of something even better.

Alita: Battle Angel hits theaters on February 14.

Media via Inverse, 20th Century Fox