'Alita: Battle Angel' Review: Overly Ambitious in a Beautiful New World

Alita: Battle Angel aims to bring the Japanese manga by Yukito Kishiro to live-action life under Robert Rodriguez's direction. While some aspects of that ambitious source material make for great cinematic moments, other big ideas don't quite soar like the story's aerial city.

With Rosa Salazar in the lead role, Alita’s centerpiece is a computerized cyborg created digitally through performance capture as a means to more accurately reflect the character's original appearance. It seems a bit unnecessary, and it is, but it also manages to be one of the film’s more rewarding elements. What could have easily been a distraction is instead a near-seamless digital creation which is a blast to marvel at. Alita’s appearance is so impressively blended into a world made up of both cyborgs and humans that she works brilliantly on screen, right down to the pores on her face.

The film quickly hurls audiences into a post-apocalyptic future where Iron City lives and serves beneath the aerial city of Zalem. It’s a huge idea and world that Rodriguez was burdened with bringing to life. While visuals introduce what initially seems compelling to explore, heavy amounts of blatant exposition often arise. Instead of a vigorous journey through this world, audiences are confined to storytelling in a doctor's office full of storylines which somewhat hinders genuine attachments to the characters or setting.

Still, cast members such as Ed Skrein (who plays the villainous Zapan) bring welcome bursts of life to Alita. Sequences which explore how his and other characters found their positions as Hunter-Warriors (a cheesy name for cyborg bounty hunters which the film enthusiastically embraces) and the code which they follow start to shine through and provide a sense of depth and mythology. It's unfortunate that they are often cut short by the notion of skirting a bigger idea or concept, with the majority of what might be most interesting seemingly being saved in hopes of a sequel.

Impressively directed action sequences are often what get Alita: Battle Angel on track. The film manages the significant feat of convincing its viewers that the main character can actually connect with humans -- both physically and emotionally. Seamless transitions and friction between characters, be it a punch in the gut or wiping a tear, are by far the movie's biggest accomplishment.

It's the underused cast members such as Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali which are most frustrating. As a result, their respective characters feel more like contrived plot devices and are obvious missteps in an otherwise ambitious and intelligent film. One's convenient change of heart and the other's bizarre connection to a largely unexplained character leaves us with more questions than interest.

Alita soars highest when action sequences show off what Rodriguez and the Weta Digital team are capable of, bringing unique and often female-driven fireworks to the big screen in what can only be described as a visual feast. This is especially true in its Motorball sequences, which is an intense and brutal battle on a slalom. It's as if iRobot had a masterfully computerized baby with Rollerball and winds up being one of the most important (and entertaining) elements of Alita from start to finish.

Unfortunately, Alita: Battle Angel comes up a bit short on compelling stakes or character development, thinking that mystery automatically means interest. The worst part is the movie comes to an end right when audiences can become fully invested.

All things considered, the movie is an immersive escape to another world. Attempts at emotion and human connections are supplemented by amazing visual and practical effects, along with well-crafted action sequences. It's not going to be the next Avatar despite being an equally massive idea, but Alita builds its own world for a second adventure which could get audiences more invested.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Alita: Battle Angel is scheduled to release in theaters on February 14, 2019.