'Alita' reunites 'Avatar' team in dim sci-fi action epic

Posted February 13, 2019 6:14 p.m. EST

— Ambitious special effects run head first into a convoluted mess of a story in "Alita: Battle Angel," an expensive-looking sci-fi movie that bears the stamp of "Avatar" and "Titanic" director James Cameron, albeit as co-writer and producer. There are no icebergs here, but that doesn't prevent the movie from sinking under its own weight.

The director, actually, is Robert Rodriguez, known for "From Dusk Till Dawn" and the equally stylized "Sin City." The movie also features a couple of marquee actors, Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali, in supporting roles, although even they can't punch their way through the density of the script, which is based on a Manga series known in Japan as "Gunnm."

Set in 2563 (the 20th Century Fox logo even morphs into "26th," which wastes the most inventive moment early), "Alita" builds an entire world, and has to catch up the audience regarding its various permutations on the fly.

Waltz plays Ido, a doctor who specializes in helping the denizens of Iron City with their artificial parts, which are many. In his foraging for material, he discovers a broken cyborg that he names Alita (Rosa Salazar), one in the form of a teenage girl, albeit with exaggerated cartoon eyes, some "Ex Machina"-esque translucent limbs and a mysterious past that she can't remember.

When pressed into action, Alita turns out to be an extraordinary fighter, skills she's given ample opportunity to show off, both on the mean streets of this strange, brutal world -- devoid of guns, but populated by bounty hunters known as "Hunter-Warriors" -- and playing a Rollerball-like game called Motorball, where mangling the competition falls within the rules.

Unfortunately, when she isn't bashing things, Alita talks and pouts like any teenager, mooning over a boy (Keean Johnson) and indulging in dialogue that sounds closer to after-school-special territory than science-fiction blockbuster.

Then again, the dialogue throughout is clunky, leaving actors like Waltz to earnestly utter lines like "A warrior's spirit needs a warrior's body." And while the computer-generated animation impressively realizes the characters, there is something numbing about all the violence involving cyborgs and humans with mostly robotic parts, which can be sliced, diced and replaced with impunity.

Ultimately, "Alita" seeks to create a semi-immersive experience (the 3D is impressive), but in the process plays like more like a videogame than a movie, which is fine for about all of 10 minutes. It doesn't really give anything away, either, to say that "Alita" doesn't really so much end as simply run out of time, clearly paving the way for a hoped-for sequel.

Given Cameron's track record, that might very well happen, and Fox -- having benefited from his past successes -- likely feels like it's playing with house money.

Still, for those waiting for the filmmaker to come out with his long-anticipated "Avatar" sequels, "Alita" -- which offers some of the same technical wizardry -- simply feels like the next worst thing.

"Alita: Battle Angel" premieres Feb. 14 in the US. It's rated PG-13.