Review: Sprawling cyborg epic 'Alita: Battle Angel' can't soar to full potential

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

James Cameron is responsible for some of the most iconic action sci-fi movies in history, so no matter how you feel about Avatar, anything with his name on it deserves a chance. That said, Cameron’s latest project, Alita: Battle Angel, is more miss than hit.

Adapted from the Yukito Kishiro manga Battle Angel Alita, this sprawling epic about a futuristic cyborg warrior spent years in development hell before Cameron gave the director’s chair over to Robert Rodriguez. That may be one of the reasons Alita feels a bit scatterbrained, the other being just how much material from the books is crammed into a 122-minute runtime.

The movie opens on Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a scientist who discovers a limbless Alita (Rosa Salazar) buried in a scrapyard. After rebuilding her, Ido finds she has amnesia and assumes the role of father figure. Though he tries to shield his proxy daughter from some of the city’s harsher realities, it becomes clear that Alita is more dangerous than anything out in the streets.

Between the requisite world-building, a subplot about a bounty hunter, the introduction of a sport called motorball, Martian super soldiers, a mysterious Big Bad, and a love story, Alita has a lot going on. Rodriguez typically fares better at action than characterization, so it’s no surprise that the battle and sports scenes stand out here. The motorball sequences play like dazzling Final Fantasy cutscenes, and Alita dishes out some top-notch ass-kicking, so depending on your taste, those elements might be worth the price of admission. And yet the story in between, though it follows Battle Angel Alita, still feels like filler between fights—a shame since Kishiro’s universe is so intriguing. Beyond brawls, Alita feels like a letdown.

What’s more, the romance between Alita and a street rat named Hugo (Keean Johnson) almost ruins the movie completely. Sure, it’s refreshing to see a male love interest getting in our protagonist’s way by being a worthless idiot, but the dynamic has seemingly no basis, and Alita’s infatuation becomes more and more nonsensical as Hugo’s scumbaggery reveals itself. She literally tries to give him her heart, so he can sell it for a whole bunch of money and achieve his dreams of going to a fancy floating city in the sky. While the love story does track with Kishiro’s source material, Cameron has written iconic heroines in Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor and Alien ’s Ripley, so it feels like he could have and should have give Alita a 21st-century revision.

The movie ends on a massive cliffhanger, which is a pretty bold and somewhat shitty move for an introductory outing. Imagine if the original Star Wars ended when Obi-Wan Kenobi dies, before Luke destroys the Death Star. That’s what you have here, but even less climactic. Barring box-office catastrophe we’ll have another entry into this universe. Here’s hoping round two can utilize Alita ’s full potential.

Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Now playing, area theaters