‘Alita: Battle Angel’ almost self destructs

Joshua Lloyd, Editor-in-Chief

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Did Hollywood learn its lesson with “Ghost in the Shell?” Now that we’ve got “Alita: Battle Angel,” it’s hard to say.

The latest instance of an idea-starved industry plugging famous manga for inspiration, “Alita” is pulled from the pages of Yukito Kishiro’s “Gunnm” series, which helped Business Jump magazine hit record sales in the 1990s. In the hands of director Robert Rodriguez and producers James Cameron and Jon Landau, “Alita: Battle Angel” comes dangerously close to blowing itself up. But by some stroke of cinematic fate (or more likely its winning lead actress), it oh-so-narrowly avoids total disaster.

The movie-verse of “Alita,” however, has not. Five centuries from now, the world has gone to shit after a cataclysmic event called “The Fall.” Alien armies descended on Earth, bringing war, annihilation, yadda yadda, so on and so forth. Only one of the great human-made sky-cities, Zalem, remains intact, and it’s full of well-to-do folk who dump their trash and scrap metal on the grimy metropolis of Iron City down below.

Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, talking in some funny staccato) is a kindred soul who sorts through these junk piles, looking for parts he can use to help Iron City commoners who’ve lost their limbs. When he finds the remains of a cyborg with its human brain intact, he brings it home and fits it onto a new body à la Dr. Frankenstein.

Doc names the Scrapyard survivor Alita and tentatively lets local boy Hugo (Keean Johnson) show her around. Hugo does the best thing a guy can do for an amnesiac cyborg and introduces her to the wonders of chocolate. Her reaction is, quite frankly, adorable.

All credit goes to Rosa Salazar, who does a superb job of bringing Alita to life behind those digitally-enlarged eyes. Alita, who looks around with wonder at a world she can’t remember, accidentally finds out she’s infused with some ancient robot fighting skills and decides to dish out punishment on the city’s criminal underbelly. Cool stuff, right?

Not cool, because we wait for what feels like forever for the fists to start flying. For a movie with “battle” in its name, it could really use more… well, battling. But instead, we get endless banter and flat one-liners, thanks to a script that feels as cobbled-together as the cyborg Hunter-Warriors that shamble around Iron City.

Only two of those “hardbodies” are treated like more than shiny set pieces: sword-swinging mercenary Zapan (played by Ed Skrein’s face) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a bruiser whose sole character trait is yelling about how much he wants to rip people apart.

Things muddle along until we get our first look at the sport of Motorball, which is like roller derby mashed up with NASCAR racing (ok, it’s sixteen million times cooler than NASCAR). The juiced-up cyborg competitors regularly die on the track, and the entertainment-starved masses of Iron City can’t get enough of it.

The money behind the Motorball scene is a shades-wearing dude named Vector (Mahershala Ali, who needs to have a serious talk with his agent). Of course, that’s just a cover for his real business, which is making sure the peasants of Iron City don’t get their hopes up for a change in the status quo. Vector answers to Nova, the unseen mastermind of Zalem who can “patch in” to his minions’ brains. Props to you if you can deduce who plays Nova in the whopping four seconds we get to see of him.

Eventually, the meandering plot turns into a glorified excuse to get Alita rocking and rolling with the other Motorball hopefuls. That’s not all bad; Alita looks right at home in the brutal Motorball sequences, all whooshing cameras and exquisite metal carnage (and a real trip in IMAX or 3D). They’re the most thrilling part of a movie that otherwise seems like it’s afraid to take more risks. (Maybe we can’t fault the “Alita” team for playing it safe. If we’ve learned anything about today’s box office, it’s that sci-fi flicks not named “Star Wars” tend to fall – hard.)

Still, even if “Alita” leans a bit too far into Hollywood cash-grabbing, you can’t help but feel like there’s a beating heart buried somewhere under the messy circuitry. And you can’t knock James Cameron’s world-building mastery. Built from the ground up by the technical savants at Weta Digital, his cyberpunk vision is a wonder to behold.

The wildly diverse Iron City feels intensely lived-in, right down to the signs and billboards printed in a dozen languages and the rust lining the steel-plated streets.

That Cameron-brand attention to detail and Salazar’s consummate motion-capture performance are just enough to save “Alita: Battle Angel” from crashing and burning. Inevitably, “Alita” feels weighed down and overstuffed by the richness of its iconic source material. But dammit if this movie isn’t as scrappy and full of surprises as its crush-worthy heroine.

Oh, and the ending is waaaayyy too open-ended not to suggest a sequel. There’s no report of a go-ahead yet; that’s for the aforementioned fickle box office to decide. But we could see Alita tearing up the Motorball track again in the not-too-distant future. Good thing, too; there are a lot of asses in Zalem that need kicking.