WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Alita: Battle Angel, in theaters now.
Alita: Battle Angel is a visually inventive film, full of immediately memorable characters and settings. The universe of the film feels lived in and real in a way that only certain, well crafted sci-fi stories ever manage to pull off. As a testament to the skilled worldbuilding of Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron (working from the landmark manga by Yukito Kishiro), Alita is great.
But as a movie? The film is overstuffed with characters who go nowhere at best and completely disappear at worst. Too much time is spent on setting up future conflicts instead of making us care about the ones happening right now. The story of Alita is so focused on setting up the next entry in the series that it fails to properly make us care enough to really even want a next one. Alita: Battle Angel doesn't work as a standalone movie, and would be considerably better as the pilot for a television series.
Leaving The Door Open
Most of the problems with Alita aren't even really flaws, just examples of mishandling the material. The universe of Iron City is confident and casual in its sci-fi tweaks to modern society, while still being close enough to reality to resonate with audiences. The early sections of the film are the most well crafted in the entire movie, establishing everything we need to know about the world and the things that make it tick. Stuff like pick up games of motorball are terrific little touches.
But that seamless construction gets sloppier as the film progresses and starts dropping hints about the war that ravaged the Earth and what kind of role the villainous Nova played in it. Character development falls by the wayside and the story takes a backseat in favor of Alita (Rosa Salazar) having more flashbacks about her mysterious past and the connections it has to the modern day. That wouldn't be as annoying if they went anywhere, but most of those visions ultimately just serve as setup for a potential sequel. While a television series would have the time and space to accommodate these questions and tease them out over time, they come across as rushed and forced in the context of a single feature-length film.
Characters appear and then promptly disappear without any warning, especially the Hunter-Warriors. Zapan (Ed Skrein) is certainly the most important of the hunters in the narrative, but almost none of the others make any major appearances at all following the scene where Alita meets them at the bar, Kansas. Only McTeague (Jeff Fahey) and Nyssiana (Eiza González) play any real role in the story, and even that is just reserved for helping Alita out of trouble or being among the otherwise nameless Hunter-Warriors trying to kill her, respectively. After those brief scenes? They're gone.