Heads roll. Severed limbs fly everywhere. Bodies are cut in half, both horizontally and vertically.
How does “Alita: Battle Angel” manage to keep a PG-13 rating? Because most of its characters are cyborgs, with human heads and metal bodies. Instead of geysers of blood, we see machinery parts fly. At one point, the main character is whittled down to just a head, a torso and one arm, and she still keeps kicking metal ass. “Alita: Battle Angel” is like “It’s Just a Flesh Wound: The Motion Picture.”
If this kind of bloodless CGI carnage is your bag, “Alita: Battle Angel,” based on the popular manga comics and anime series, is cool to look at. But director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) and co-writer James Cameron (“Avatar”) can’t go beyond looking cool to make something truly exciting or memorable.
“Alita” is set in a familiar sci-fi dystopia where the elites live in a city in the sky named Zalem while the rabble toil on Earth in a ruined metropolis named Iron City. There’s a not-too-subtle racial component here as well. While the denizens of Iron City are diverse, the only residents of Zalem we see are lily-white.
Iron City residents toil in The Factory to send goods up to Zalem, and then watch as the elites' garbage rains down to Earth. Among the trash comes a discarded robo-brain and spinal cord, discovered by Iron City’s resident cyborg fixer-up Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz). He takes it home, outfits it with a new body and brings it back to consciousness.
He names her Alita, after his deceased daughter, and Rosa Salazar’s motion-captured performance is captivating. Despite her anime proportions (too slender body, too big eyes), we stop noticing that Alita is a CGI creation, so convincingly does she interact with the human actors.
Tentatively exploring this new world and figuring out her place in it, she seems like any other teenager trying to get accustomed to her changing self. At one point, expressing her feelings for a teenage boy (Keean Johnson), she literally takes her heart out of her chest and offers it to him. Maybe they could start by liking each other’s Instagram posts and see where it goes?
If “Alita” had stayed more in this machine-discovers-being-human mode (as in the charming “Bumblebee”) it would have been better. But the plot is a wheezing, over-complicated mishmash of sneering villains, secret conspiracies and memories of intergalactic wars past, as Alita tries to figure out who she once was, and why so many bad guys want to kill her.
When cornered, Alita displays a warrior’s instincts and skills. That leads to exquisitely choreographed fight sequences, where she gracefully dodges and weaves between cyborgs sporting chainsaws and metal tentacles. Rodriguez has always been a shameless B-movie filmmaker at heart, so he has appendages fly directly at the screen, making for an undeniably neat 3D experience. These sequences are fun, especially when Alita straps on wheeled feet for the murderous local bloodsport known as Robotball, with combat happening at high speed on a roller-derby style track. It’s exhilarating.
But when the action dies down, the screenplay’s pacing sputters and jerks, trying to chase down several subplots without building to anything. By the end, I still didn’t understand what the main villains, Mahershala Ali’s Vector and Jennifer Connelly’s Dr. Chiren, were supposed to be up to. (Waltz, Ali and Connelly — that’s three Oscar winners in a movie about fighting robots on wheels, folks!)
The film ends on a deliberately unresolved cliffhanger, with a Big Name Actor making a surprise cameo as the villain who has pulled the puppet strings all along. He probably would be just as happy if the promised sequel never gets made, and so would much of the audience.