Life is tough in Iron City, the postapocalyptic setting of Alita: Battle Angel. It’s an industrial trash heap of a metropolis piled high with forgotten technology from the time before a vaguely defined, cataclysmic war known as “the Fall.” Cybernetic bounty hunters stalk their prey through town, along with gearhead street gangs looking to strip robot folk for parts. The popular local sport is called Motorball and involves machine-people tooling around a futuristic velodrome and trying to murder one another. I’m not opposed to hustle and bustle, but Iron City might well be the noisiest place imaginable—a clanking, screeching pit of a town with rusted-metal streets and an aesthetic that could kindly be described as “junkyard.”
Into this bewitching sci-fi environment plops Alita (played by Rosa Salazar), who’s dumped from Zalem, the magical sky city that floats overhead, into a garbage pit. Did I forget to mention the floating sky city before? Well, I’m just following the storytelling approach of Alita, which is fond of dropping seismic bits of information into the viewer’s lap out of nowhere. There’s a sudden flashback to a spectacular battle on the moon and the introduction of a mysterious supervillain called Nova, who can possess people and make their eyes turn blue. At one point, the Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz says the phrase Panzer Kunst with the utmost seriousness—and the audience is supposed to immediately grasp what he’s talking about.
I loved it all. I’m defenseless before any dizzyingly silly sci-fi epic that downloads gigabytes of lore into the viewer’s brain by means of a simple hero’s-journey narrative. Think of films like Jupiter Ascending, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, even last year’s Aquaman—colorful, mega-budgeted nonsense splashed onto a grand canvas. Alita: Battle Angel is based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Gunnm. Adapted by James Cameron (who also produced) and Laeta Kalogridis, the film is directed by Robert Rodriguez, whose previous efforts include bewildering CGI-boosted epics such as Spy Kids and Sin City. True to its origins, Alita is a living cartoon of a film, which only makes its ridiculousness easier to absorb.
The biggest ask the movie makes of its audience is to accept the unusual look of its leading lady, which no other character shares. Alita is performed via motion capture by Salazar (an up-and-coming star who made a significant impression in the Maze Runner series). When Alita falls from the sky, she’s just a head and torso ready to be plugged into a cyborg body. The kindly Doctor Dyson Ido (Waltz) obliges, and Alita wakes up, opening two eyes the size of dinner plates. It’s amazing that nobody sings “Jeepers Creepers” at any point, because these are some hefty peepers, computerized onto Salazar’s face to mimic the exaggerated style of manga and to set her apart from the regular old humans wandering around Iron City.
Still, if you can take the mental leap demanded by Alita’s distinctive appearance, then the rest of the film should follow. Alita doesn’t have one main story. It has a loose, episodic feel, illuminating different stages of its heroine’s past and eagerly setting up a potential sequel that will likely never come to pass (if box-office tracking is to be trusted). After receiving her robot body, Alita learns the rules of Iron City from Dr. Ido, then runs into the mysterious robotics expert Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), the Motorball crime lord Vector (Mahershala Ali), the bounty hunters Zapan (Ed Skrein) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), and the heartthrob street urchin Hugo (Keean Johnson). The film is a coming-of-age teen caper that evolves into a sports movie that evolves into a Bourne Identity–style action drama, as Alita unlocks the full range of her powers from her previous, forgotten life.
Most importantly, there’s action and lots of it—beautifully rendered, clean action, the likes of which only Cameron can provide. Though he’s only a producer and writer here, Cameron nearly drowns out Rodriguez’s directorial voice in the process of transposing the motion-capture technology he deployed so well in his last film (Avatar) onto this future-punk extravaganza. This is a world where people’s hands can turn into spinning chains or projectile spike-balls, and where Waltz’s character wields a 10-foot-tall hammer powered by a rocket engine. As in so many blockbusters of the moment, the set pieces have all the potential to be chaotic CGI messes. But Alita takes special care to have the choreography of its elaborate clashes make sense at every moment.
As the generously proportioned story (running at 122 minutes) rounds into its third act, there’s a gooey romantic subplot that slows down an otherwise propulsive narrative. The film is also a little too eager to set up those would-be future installments (there’s even a surprise cameo from another Oscar nominee as a last-minute twist). But the scale of Alita’s ambition is matched only by its joie de vivre; it’s as if every ramshackle contraption in Iron City is powered by energetic silliness alone. We may never get an Alita sequel, but the next time Hollywood tries to mount an outrageous sci-fi spectacle like this one, I’ll be there to hold up my cybertorch.