ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL: 3 STARS. “like its main character, has a synthetic heart.”
“There ain’t nothin’ in the world like a big eyed girl to make Christoph Waltz act so funny. Five years ago he played Walter Keane, the wannabe artist who wrongly took credit for his wife Margaret’s phenomenally successful paintings of sad looking kids with enormous eyes. He returns to screens this weekend as a mentor to a cyborg heroine who looks like she stepped out of one of Keane’s paintings.
Set in 2563, three hundred years after “the fall,” a deadly war, the story takes place in the dangerous and dystopian Iron City. Overcrowded and violent, the city doesn’t even have police, just Hunter Warriors who track down criminals for cash.
The action kicks off when the kind-hearted cybersurgeon Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) finding the cast-off “core” of Alita (Rosa Salazar) an abandoned cyborg with amnesia, discarded in a scrapyard. “I guess I’m an insignificant girl,” she says later, “thrown out with the rest of the garbage.”
Recognizing that there is more to her than metal and wiring, he takes her in, and like a high tech Dr. Frankenstein pieces together a body for her abandoned head and shoulders. He cares for her as if she was his daughter, attempting to give her a normal life despite the fact that there is very little normal about her. Sure, she giggles like a teenage girl and develops a love-at-first-sight crush on Hugo (Keean Johnson), but strange flickers of memory keep popping into her head.
Fragments of her former life come back when she least expects it. When she rescues a dog from danger an old instinct kicks in and she shows remarkable agility and speed. Later, when Hugo teaches her to play Motorball—sort of parkour on rollerblades—she displays incredible skill.
Turns out triggers recollections of her warrior past, providing clues to who she once was. As her true identity emerges—turns out she is one of the most advanced cyborg weapons ever made—sinister forces in Iron City including Motorball impresario Vector (Mahershala Ali) and the world-weary Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), want her stopped. At stake is not just her survival but the survival of Iron City, and everyone in it. “I do not stand by in the presence of evil,” she says.
Loosely based on Yukito Kishiro’s original manga, with a focus on the first four books, “Alita: Battle Angel” provides director Robert Rodriguez with lots of material for world building. Perhaps too much. Each main character has a backstory, whether it is in Iron City or the Eden-like floating world of Zalem. There’s hundreds of years of history to establish, the rules to Motorball and, of course, the blending of Alita’s two lives, past and present. There’s a lot going on. Exposition abounds and with the frenzy of plot it is inevitable there will be shards of unanswered and unexplored left by the time the end credits roll. Add to that a cliffhanger ending that doesn’t feel like an ending, more like Rodriguez simply ran out of film, and you have a movie more concerned with its franchise possibilities than telling a complete story.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is a feast of imaginative CGI, driven by large scale spectacle but, like its main character, has a synthetic heart.