I’ve just met a girl named Alita, and suddenly that name—thanks to director Robert Rodriguez and some downright dazzling visual effects work from the folks at Weta Digital—will never be the same. Alita: Battle Angel is a whole heck of a lot of movie, a two-hour dive into a dense cyber-punk dystopia filled with cyborg bounty hunters, deadly roller-skate-based extreme sports, and the remnants of a catastrophic war between the Earth and Mars. The storytelling can be a bit of a catastrophe, too; there’s more explanation in the dialogue here than there is on the Wikipedia page for the manga source material. But visually, woo boy, visually Alita: Battle Angel is an experience well-worth that extra 3D cash. Yes, the main character—Rosa Salazar delivering a mo-cap performance—has got some big eyes. But during some of these set-pieces, you might have them, too.
Based on the manga Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, Alita: Battle Angel is set 300 years after The Fall, a conflict between Earth and URM (United Republic of Mars) that scorched the planet up something fierce. The last survivors of the human race converged in two locations: Zalem, the upscale city in the clouds suspended in mid-air through the miracles of engineering—it’s never quite explained, just “engineering”—and Iron City, the dusty, eclectic slums beneath Zalem built around a massive junkyard. It’s on the scrap heap that Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the living core of a cyborg; he rebuilds the bot, who awakens sans memories, and christens her Alita after the doctor’s late daughter, not the healthiest of personal choices. But buried in Alita’s programming is the training of an elite URM soldier and a past connected to Zalem’s elite, a past that some would kill to snuff out.
That barely scratches the surface of all the wonky post-apocalypse-punk action that goes on in Alita. This is a full world, and while there’s a ton of inventiveness in the way Rodriguez brings it to life visually, the script—co-written by Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis—struggles to keep up. There’s not only Alita’s origin story and her burgeoning vendetta against Zalem’s upper-crust, there’s also the introduction of Motorball, a high-octane future-days sporting event where tech-enhanced humans kill the crap out of each other to put a ball in a basket, a sport that, surprisingly, plays a vital part in the film. We also need to meet Hugo (Keean Johnson), a scrapper with some secrets that turns into a romantic interest for Alita, and the cyborg bounty-hunter squad known as the Hunter-Warriors (In this future scenario, the people responsible for coming up with cool names for stuff all died, apparently.) Add in flashbacks to Alita’s past—including a battle on the freaking moon that I’d gladly watch a whole movie about—and you get a lot of walk-and-talks where characters explain How Things Work.
But again, you’re never quite bored, because the detail put into Alita: Battle Angel‘s world-building is a feast for the eyes. It’s no surprise to see ol’ James Cameron‘s name attached as producer; Alita comes from the same 3D digital effects team that broke the world’s collective minds (and the box office) with Avatar, not to mention Avengers: Infinity War and the dragons from Game of Thrones. Here, Rodriguez and the crew pull off two absolute miracles that are vital to the film’s success. The first is that at no point does Alita ever devolve into the mind-blurring Transformers-like fuckery that CGI-heavy films so often can become. This movie is filled with grinding gears, saw-blade sparks, and towering robots equipped with impossibly complex weaponry. But the action, which arrives loudly and often, is so coherent, and that makes it consistently thrilling. Rodriguez crashlands you into a cyborg bar fight, a raucous game of Motorball, or a chase through the dystopian streets of Iron City but you never feel lost. CGI can make a story feel dead, but here it brings the movie to life.
The second miracle is, quite simply, Alita herself. Centering your film on a digitally-created character is a risky venture—not everyone is Andy Serkis—but you can’t help but fall a little in love with this character as she transforms from fish-out-of-water into a stone-cold robot badass. So much of that is down to Salazar’s performance; the actress imbues Alita with so much earnest humanity you occasionally forget she’s not actually on screen. Which, of course, is the entire point of the character, a machine with the mind and soul of a person.
Unfortunately, a few extremely gifted performers get put on the sidelines in favor of all this world-building. Mahershala Ali shows up as the villainous, corrupt Motorball executive Vector, a thankless role that doesn’t ask the Oscar-winner to do much more than walk into rooms wearing tiny sunglasses and look cool as shit. (In fairness, if Looking Cool As Shit was an Oscar category Ali would take it home yearly.) Same goes for Jennifer Connelly as Chiren, a character who pops up in so many important scenes you get the sense she’s supposed to be integral to the plot, but doesn’t have enough motivation to justify it.
In the end, though, it’s an over-stuffed world but one that I would gladly return to. Of course, 20th Century Fox is hoping the same thing. Since a certain buckethead burst on to the scene in 2008, every studio movie with an above-average budget is trying to build a franchise. Alita: Battle Angel is no different, with a climax designed to set up a sequel. (Including the reveal of a well-known actor I won’t spoil as the villain pulling all the strings.) But for the first time in a long time, I’m happy to stay on this wild, visually dazzling ride for a few more stops.