‘Alita’ packs in stunning visuals, but forgets cohesive story

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Producer/director James Cameron has been trying to get a movie made based on the manga “Gunnm” since at least the dawn of the 21st century. After nearly two decades, that movie, “Alita: Battle Angel,” is here and it is visually stunning.

It’s too bad the quality of the story falls short of the quality of the visuals.

“Alita: Battle Angel” tells the identity-searching tale of Alita (Rosa Salazar), a female cyborg with no memories of her past. Rescued from a garbage heap and rebuilt by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), Alita ventures out into the world and soon runs across hunky Hugo (Keean Johnson), and the two soon fall for one another.

Meanwhile, dark, mysterious figures behind the scene are working dark, mysterious machinations. Vector (Mahershala Ali) is up to something and soon comes into conflict with Alita. This all comes to a head as Alita learns her true identity, and all her loved ones come under threat.

It ’s hard to summarize the plot of “Alita” because it is a mess. It features plot strands about Alita’s struggle to find out who she is, Alita’s relationship with Hugo and a group of bounty hunters called Hunter Warriors, any one of which could supply enough story for its own movie. Cameron’s chosen director, Robert Rodriguez, has chosen to squeeze all this plot into a 122-minute package. To say things are a tad rushed is a massive understatement.

As a result of so much plot, the character and story cohesiveness suffer. Take the character of Dr. Ido. He’s incredibly inconsistent. At one point, he tells Alita that motorball, the most popular sport in the world of the movie, is nothing she needs to give any attention to. A few scenes later, he’s building her motorball gear, without the film having shown any process of how he came to accept Alita playing the game.

The pacing is uneven as well. Scenes cut to other scenes at the wrong moment, bringing the build-up of tension to a screeching halt. Early on, the movie takes time to set up a mysterious side plot only to never come back to it. Omitting those scenes might have smoothed to pacing out a little. Similar issues arise throughout the film.

With a script that’s this poorly constructed and full of lame characterization, the cast is at a real disadvantage. So, it’s a win for “Alita” that the cast acquits themselves as well as they do. Salazar’s performance drives the animation the effects artists used for her face, and she’s terrific. She’s gritty, determined, sweet or vulnerable when she needs to be.

Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in ‘Alita: Battle Angel.’

Christoph Waltz does what he can with his character, and his performance is good. It’s not his fault he can’t make up for all the flaws in the writing, just as it’s not his fault that far too often, he’s on screen solely to spout exposition. Ali is smooth yet threatening as Vector. Jennifer Connelly and Ed Skrein are both solid in their roles. The cast is good, but the writing lets them down.

If there’s one reason to see “Alita,” it’s the visuals. The world of “Altia” is stunning, full of details and interesting stuff going on in the corners of the frames. Motorball — the violent offspring of football, roller derby and a straight-up Death Race — is a riot. The action scenes have that extra degree of Robert Rodrigues-derived insanity that gives them extra personality. Some of the wide shot of the cityscapes are breathtaking. I love this world and wish I could live there.

The bottom line: If you’re expecting a cohesive, satisfying story, “Alita: Battle Angel” is not the movie for you. It’s a sputtering narrative that fails to explore the interesting themes and questions it raises. But if you’re looking to spend two hours in an eye-popping futuristic world, see this movie on the biggest screen you can.

2 ½ Indy Fedoras out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG-13

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Thanks to Fat Cats in Rexburg for providing screenings for movie reviews on EastIdahoNews.com.