Review: Big eyes, big bang in 'Alita: Battle Angel'

Mind-blowing visual style overcomes tepid plot elements in manga story come to life

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Rose Salazar in "Alita: Battle Angel."

As Neo said in "The Matrix," "whoa." 

Watching "Alita: Battle Angel," the eye-popping, groundbreaking, visually dazzling stunner from Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron, you can feel the ground beneath you shifting. Or maybe that's just the rumble chairs with which certain theaters showing "Alita" have been equipped. Either way, "Alita" delivers a feeling that what you're seeing is fresh and new, similar to when you first stumbled into "The Matrix." It looks like the future, and the future is bright.

"Alita's" grand visual presentation — the most immersive, complete use of 3D since "Avatar" — unfortunately accompanies a story that is as clunky as a bicycle with a busted wheel. Cameron co-wrote the script, and you can tell; "Alita" is saddled with a love story as bubble gum gooey as two teenagers passing notes in math class. Come for the visuals and hold on to your head. The story, however, might give you a headache. 

The year is 2563 — the 20th Century Fox logo in front of the film is altered to 26th Century Fox — and the setting is Iron City, a post-apocalyptic industrial melting pot that rests beneath Zalem, a sky city where the wealthy reside. While scrapping in a junk pile, cyber-surgeon Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a discarded cyborg in a pile of parts and carts the pieces back to his lab. A bit of tinkering and voila, he brings her back to life, naming her Alita, after his deceased daughter. 

Alita is a fully digital character with the brown saucer eyes of a Japanese manga figure. She is played, through motion capture, by Rose Salazar ("Bird Box"), and the buy-in is immediate. Her renderings are smooth, her presence is real, and it feels like she has a beating heart rather than a collection of zeroes and ones. Her's is the most convincing digital performance to ever lead a film, and paves the way for a revolution to follow. 

It's a good thing the Alita character is so convincing, because the rest of the story is bumpy. Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), and their love story is Disney Channel bland. He takes her for rides through the city on his proto-motorcycle, she hangs on tightly; they're like a donut and glaze, and twice as sugary. "You are the most human person I've ever met," he tells her, a line you just know Cameron came up with on his own. 

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows the character Alita, voiced by Rosa Salazar, in a scene from "Alita: Battle Angel."

In Iron City, the pastime of choice is Motorball, a violent form of roller derby that looks like it's played on tracks left over from the Wachowski Brothers' "Speed Racer." The sport's evil overlord — come on, don't act like the sport wouldn't have an evil overlord — is Vector (Mahershala Ali), who's like Morpheus but with way less to do. Vector is working with Ido's ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly, sporting a jewel in the center of her forehead, because the future?) to fix the sport at the behest of Zalem's supreme leader (a cameoing Major Actor, whose identity is best kept a surprise). Alita enters the Motorball world and uses her platform to become a hero of the people. It's an undoubtedly silly hybrid of "Rollerball" and "The Running Man," but at least the smash-em-up action is wild.

And the action is wild throughout. Rodriguez ("Sin City") is a master stylist known for working on the cheap, but here he's given a budget to go crazy — reports say the movie cost upwards of $200 million — and he delivers a striking visual bonanza. Alita does battle with a host of gladiator warriors also assembled from spare parts, the most menacing among them Jackie Earle Haley's Grewishka, and Rodriguez pumps those scenes with vivid, thrilling detail. (Given the violence of those scenes, how they managed to come in under the PG-13 wire speaks to Cameron's sway in Hollywood.) It's when Rodriguez has to tie those scenes together with arduous elements like plot that "Alita" stumbles. 

Still, the good here far outweighs the clumsy, and "Alita: Battle Angel's" visual pow more than makes up for its narrative whimper. You've never seen anything like it, because there's never been anything like it. Welcome back to the Matrix.


'Alita: Battle Angel'


Rated PG-13: for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language

Running time: 122 minutes