Fans of James Cameron’s work will find themselves in familiar territory when it comes to Alita: Battle Angel. Once again, Cameron and Jon Landau (with the considerable help of Weta Digital) have delivered a piece of entertainment that is unmatched in technical proficiency. However, that achievement is somewhat tempered by a predictable and slightly dull story.
For the uninitiated, Alita: Battle Angel is based on a popular Yukito Kishiro post-apocalyptic manga from the 1990s called Gunnm. It follows the story of Alita, a cyborg discovered in a scrap heap by kindly engineer Dyson Edo (Christoph Waltz) who repairs her only to discover she’s far more special and unique than he’d initially realized. Alita has no memory of her life before her reawakening in Edo’s lab, but the more she learns about and explores the world around her, the more she recalls about her former life. Her old memories and new relationships set her on a course to complete a mission that’s been left unfinished for far too long.
If that description feels vague, that’s because the how and why of Alita moving from one point of the story to another isn’t what you’re going to remember about this experience. The immersive world that took decades to make it to the big screen as rendered by Cameron, Landau and director Robert Rodriguez is what will take your breath away, and deservedly so. By mixing practical effects and sets with the most advanced performance motion capture technology you've literally ever seen, Iron City, Motorball and Alita herself come alive in a way that, frankly, puts Avatar's Pandora and its inhabitants to shame.
Rosa Salazar’s Alita is obviously the most prominent example of the advancements Cameron and Landau have made in mo-cap technology; the character is arguably the most expressive digitally rendered face that has ever appeared in a feature film.
The attention to detail pays off; while having a CG-rendered character mingling with the harsher realism of Iron City might have teetered dangerously close to interruptive, Alita is so wonderfully realized, she always feels like she belongs despite standing in stark contrast to virtually everyone else. The actress underneath the technology, Rosa Salazar, shines through and due to her innocent, justice-seeking nature, sometimes even coming off as more human than her flesh and blood counterparts, the villainous Vector (Maharshela Ali) and his disillusioned partner-in-crime Chrin (Jennifer Connelly).
Even beyond Alita, the film is a veritable buffet of eye candy – whether we’re staring up at the sky city Zalim from the clogged streets of the slums below, are placed in the middle of a high speed Motorball game (think a deadly form of Roller Derby, but with roller blades and legal weapons) or even take a trip through Alita’s fractured memory – the world that’s rendered is so complete and so thrilling, it provides more than adequate distraction from a story that could’ve used just a little extra attention.
The premise of a female hero finding herself and her courage certainly couldn’t premiere at a better time (and to be honest, it's difficult to imagine that any little girl watching this won’t be in some capacity inspired to stand up for herself and others), but the narrative is executed so blandly, every significant moment feels forced. There’s never any mystery about what will happen between any two characters, so there are no surprises, no twists and no real discoveries. Important moments feel as though they’ve been checked off a list as opposed to organically developing out of circumstances and characters. So while the film features stellar performances by everyone including major talents like Ali, Connelly and Waltz, at no point will the story capture more of your attention than the technical achievement.
If you’re interested in seeing Alita: Battle Angel (and you should be), do yourself a favor and spend the money on IMAX, 3-D and Dolby, and you’ll have an amazing experience. But whatever you do, just don’t tell yourself it’ll be fine to wait until it comes out OnDemand.