'Alita: Battle Angel' falters where it matters most but makes up for it with bright action scenes and a talented cast

20th Century FoxRosa Salazar stars as the title character in ‘Alita: Battle Angel.’
  • Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for “Alita: Battle Angel.”
  • New sci-fi action movie “Alita: Battle Angel” is an impressive achievement in visual effects that skates by on thin writing thanks to a fantastic ensemble cast.

“Alita: Battle Angel” starts with a compelling opening. From the moment the familiar 20th Century Fox logo flickers and changes to say “26th Century Fox” in decrepit lettering instead, there’s a promise of greatness ahead. But about halfway through the spectacle of impressive world-building and character designs, the story’s weaknesses begin overtaking the impressive cast and well-designed action.

Why you should care: The movie is based on a successful manga series and has a fantastic cast.

“Alita: Battle Angel” is an adaptation of a ’90s Japanese manga series called Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. This live-action version was produced and co-written by James Cameron (“Titanic,” “Avatar”) along with Laeta Kalogridis (Netflix’s “Altered Carbon”). It was directed by Robert Rodriguez (“From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Spy Kids”).

Alita Battle Angel movie hands close up 20th Century Fox20th Century FoxAlita wakes up to find herself in a new body with no memories of her past.

The movie’s lead, Rosa Salazar (“Maze Runner”) gives a solid voice and motion-capture performance as the title character: A cyborg with the human brain of a teenager dubbed Alita. The supporting ensemble cast includes Oscar-winning actors Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, and Christoph Waltz.

What’s hot: The visual effects and stellar cast bring moments of brilliance.

Set in 2563, some 300 years after a major space battle brought destruction to the world, “Alita: Battle Angel” takes place in a grungy city where many of its occupants are part-cyborg amputees thanks to a higher order who likes experimenting on human body parts.

But then there is Alita, a “total replacement cybor” with a real human brain that once belonged to a teenage girl. When Doctor Dyson Ido finds her core in a scrap yard, he pieces her back together and soon they discover together that Alita is really a manufactured weapon.

Alita and Hugo Alita Battle Angel 20th Century Fox20th Century FoxThe animation of Alita’s unique character design is mesmerising.

Throughout the movie, Alita has to fight deadly bounty hunters (called “hunter warriors” in this universe) and other cyborgs sent to assassinate her. There’s also a violent sports game called “motorball,” which becomes quasi-central to the storyline. In each of these extended action scenes, “Alita: Battle Angel” begins to sing with brilliantly orchestrated fight choreography and plenty of impressive moments for our title heroine.

Ali, Connelly, and Waltz all bring touches of brilliance to their characters, particularly the physicality Ali uses in order to pull off a curveball thrown to his role early on. Ed Skrein also shines in a deliciously threatening way as one of the deadly hunter warriors who comes face-to-face with Alita.

What’s not: The weak script delivers some eye roll-worthy lines and unearned emotional beats.

If there’s one trope we should be done with by 2019, it’s the scene where a young, impressive female character makes an inspiring or threatening speech to a room full of men and then, a beat later, those men burst into laughter.

“Alita: Battle Angel” not only invokes this trope, but also fails to allow its own hero to stand on her own without allusions to her “womanly” form when Alita gets a new, sleeker, and more sophisticated cyborg body. The romantic subplot of the movie between Alita and a human teenager named Hugo carries along just fine, but when it comes time to feel emotional payoff those moments fall flat.

Alita and Hugo in rain Alita Battle Angel 20th Century Fox20th Century FoxUltimately her relationship with Hugo doesn’t impact the way the script wants it to.

There’s both too much and not enough movie contained in “Alita: Battle Angel,” almost as if we’re getting to see half of a planned trilogy, but just cut into one long film. There are poorly explained aspects of the world order, like the harvesting of human body parts (for what?) and what it means that Alita’s brain is that of a human girl (who was she?) or the whole reason why the great war happened 300 years ago.

The stakes feel too low and yet the body count gets very high, and the philosophical questions about what it means to be human vs. cyborg are barely addressed. By the time the credits rolled, the end came as a surprise thanks to inconsistent pacing and an unclear path forward in the story.

The bottom line: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is a visually impressive movie-going experience, but don’t expect to feel emotional fireworks.

The flashes of greatness from the cast’s performance and well-executed visual effects will satisfy some audiences. When it comes to storytelling, earned emotional impact, and 21st century heroine-led science fiction, seek that satisfaction elsewhere.

Grade: C+

“Alita: Battle Angel” arrives in theatres on Thursday, February 14. Watch the trailer below.

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