If there’s ever a time to watch “Alita: Battle Angel,” a clunky, uneven visual spectacle that values its cyber-steampunk style over substance, it’s now.
The latest film from Texas director Robert Rodriguez is a visual wonder from start to finish that won’t feel special in six months and this franchise hopeful will likely fade into obscurity.
Based on the Japanese manga comic book series “Gunnm,” “Alita” follows a young cyborg girl rescued from a junkyard unable to remember her past life until she goes out in search of answers amid turmoil between a rich cloud city floating far above impoverished Iron City.
As a story, it’s largely as unremarkable as it sounds.
On a big screen, Rodriguez gives audiences a rare peek into the future of cinema.
“Alita” stands on the forefront of the new age in visual effects with a hyper-realistic style that gives a near lifelike sheen to its cyborg characters.
In this regard, Rodriguez’s film compares quite favorably to the dynamic effects in Steven Spielberg’s 2018 adventure fantasy “Ready Player One,” which is currently nominated for an Academy Award in visual effects this spring.
Despite not being seen herself on screen, Rosa Salazar proves herself a star in a fantastic turn as Alita through advanced motion capture technology that was able to gather the nuances of Salazar’s physical performance and digitize it to create Alita.
Salazar is able to bring warmth and vibrancy to the character both emotionally and vocally with big, piercing eyes and the slightest tremble in her throat.
A lesser performance could have easily rendered “Alita” unwatchable, but Salazar draws viewers in beyond the special effects to care about Alita as a character.
Save for the legendary work of Andy Serkis (Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films, Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy), there isn’t a better motion capture performance to hit theaters in five-plus years. Alita alone, both visually and emotionally, is worth the price of admission.
The film boasts a strong cast of secondary leads including a pair of former Oscar winners in Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali, though their work feels perfunctory, almost paint by numbers, in comparison to Salazar and fails to elevate the lackluster script.
There’s an epic grandeur to “Alita” – from scale to production design to CGI – that haphazardly works in segments and fails to elevate the film in others, though executive producer James Cameron is probably more to blame than Rodriguez.
Before shifting full attention to his “Avatar” trilogy, Cameron wrote an 180-page screenplay with over 600 pages of notes Rodriguez had to consolidate down into a manageable shooting script.
As a result, dialogue can feel choppy at times and especially expository. Rodriguez and Cameron never find a way to make conversation between characters as engaging as the action sequences, much like an average musical would “yada yada” its way between songs.
Like Alita herself, the action usually dazzles in “Alita” as the mixture of motion capture, live action and computer graphics combine for engaging, dynamic moments, especially as Alita takes on the violent world of motor-ball, a futuristic version of roller derby.
Like “Ready Player One” before it, the visual effects of “Alita” are so striking that an Academy Award nomination is likely despite the film being released over 10 months before voting would begin. There’s some truly special work being done by film artists.
It’s unfortunate, however, that the story as a whole can’t quite rise to the occasion.
“Alita” is one of the few remaining films that will suffer significantly in smaller presentation. For even mildly interested moviegoers, it almost has to be seen theatrically as “Alita” becomes less dynamic and enjoyable to watch when the dazzling effects don’t buoy the middling screenplay.
A mildly entertaining adventure with a lot to see and sequels to set up, “Alita: Battle Angel” is a better representation of the future of film than a good film itself.