If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the pair belonging to the cyborg heroine of Alita: Battle Angel are a set of double doors flung wide open, as limpid and blossoming as a Keane painting’s. Alita (Rosa Salazar) enters the movie atop a heap of scrap outside the settlement of Iron City, which is where most of what human life remains on Earth has clustered in the mid–26th century. Or rather, her head does, along with a remnant of metallic spine dangling below. Storefront cybernetic surgeon Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds Alita’s central nervous system and rebuilds her from the neck down, but the movie, which was directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, works in the other direction, from the gut—or is it the crotch—to the heart, only occasionally making it all the way to the brain.
Although it’s set in the year 2563, the driving force behind Alita is nostalgia. It’s technologically up to the minute, with sprawling computer-generated landscapes and genuinely immersive 3D, but all those effects are put at the service of a story that feels like it could have been written in the 1980s. (It’s actually based on a manga series by Yukito Kishiro, published in the following decade.) Its vision of the future, a planet laid waste by a conflict with the United Republics of Mars (URM), feels both dystopian and charmingly naïve. (For one thing, it seems sweetly optimistic to forecast that humans will even be alive on Earth 500 years from now.) Iron City’s denizens get their kicks from watching motorball, which is essentially a Max Max’d version of roller derby, and one of its chief antagonists, Grewishka (Jackie Early Haley), looks like a professional wrestler’s head plopped atop the chassis of Robocop’s tanklike ED-209. Its racial and gender politics also feel a couple or three decades out of date: When Alita trades her first robotic body, originally built for Dyson’s dead teenage daughter, for a more battle-ready one, she also gains a supermodel’s curves, as if having a knockout figure were a strategic advantage in combat.
Alita reawakens with no memory of her past, so it’s up to Dyson and Hugo (Keean Johnson), a street-smart kid as dull as his biceps are bulging, to show her the ropes. In a world where human-robot fusions are commonplace, any person can be abducted and sold for parts, both mechanical and organic. There’s a quasi-military peacekeeping force that is mainly loyal to Zalem, the last of what was once a vast network of flying cities, from whose midair garbage chute Alita’s remnants emerged, but the peace is mainly kept by hunter-warriors, who track down fugitives—or at least their identifiable parts—for cash rewards. There’s law, and there’s order, but their overlap is more a matter of coincidence than purpose. Ruling over this is Vector (Mahershala Ali) who runs the motorball games aboveboard and a black-market business below it, and is currently shacked up with Dyson’s ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who’s also a brilliant surgeon. Oh, and sometimes Vector is possessed by the spirit, or something, of Nova, the largely unseen ruler of Zalem, who can apparently zap himself into the consciousness of anyone on Earth if he feels like it.
That’s a lot of plot for one movie, and it still leaves huge questions unanswered: We learn almost nothing about the URM beyond its name and the fact that it had access to highly advanced technology that has been forgotten in the hundreds of years since the war between Earth and Mars. We never make it to Zalem, catch only a brief glimpse of Nova, and leave the movie on what amounts to the setup for a sequel whose prospects are anything but certain. Kishiro’s original manga ran to nine volumes, and Alita draws from the first four, compressing nearly 1,000 pages into a surprisingly lean story that barely tops two hours. (Is it a compliment to say it feels more like three?) But the plot isn’t what draws you in. Some of it is Salazar’s performance, and the motion-capture work that maps her expressions onto a figure whose not-quite-humanity is the point of the story. But mostly it’s the thrill of the chase, the meeting of Cameron’s sweeping, often sentimental visions with Rodriguez’s feel for genre trash.
The former’s influence feels predominant here. Rodriguez is a cool-guy cynic, but Alita, like Cameron, has a heart of corn. Although it’s not as dazzling as Avatar’s bucolic environments, Iron City’s grungy textures look so real you can feel the rust flake, reminding you that few people in the nearly 10 years since Avatar have used 3D technology as well as Cameron did, and no one has done it better. There are moments so purely ingenuous they make you laugh with a mixture of disbelief and glee, like when Jeff Fahey shows up as a redneck bounty hunter who keeps a pack of cybernetic hounds on hand. It’s goofy as hell and borderline inexcusable at times, but it’s also kind of glorious. If learning that Alita turns out to a master of a forgotten combat technique called Panzer Kunst makes you roll your eyes, you’d be better off with a movie more concerned with being superficially hip. But if it prompts even a hint of a smile, you might find yourself embracing it with open arms, and eyes as wide as Alita’s.