When was the last time you heard an enthusiastic "Hi-yah!" in a movie not starring Miss Piggy? The martial-arts exclamation is just one indication of how unpretentious the new cyberpunk action film "Alita: Battle Angel" is.
James Cameron long planned to direct the script he co-wrote with Laeta Kalogridis ("Shutter Island"), but after 16 years of on-and-off development, "Alita" finally arrives from director Robert Rodriguez ("Sin City," "Spy Kids"). The resulting film retains a lot of Cameron-esque DNA -- especially the skillful application of 3D, worth the upgrade at the box office.
Alita's role as a "battle angel" literally comes together in the film's first scenes, as cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) of Iron City scavenges the refuse dropped from Zalem (last of the great sky cities) and discovers "a total replacement cyborg" with a "miraculously intact" human brain. This is Alita, soon to be the sensation of post-war 2563. As portrayed by Rosa Salazar in a motion-capture performance rendered over with CGI, Alita has pep, heart and a Tim Burton-esque whimsy about her -- at least at first. Soon enough her big-eyed patchwork-doll design goes to work kicking butt, first as a Motorball player and then as a Hunter-Warrior.
"Alita: Battle Angel" resembles Dr. Ido in its repurposing of spare parts. The filmmakers do a fine job of evoking manga and anime in their pop-culture mashup style and lush romanticism (Alita falls into a tragic romance with Keean Johnson's cute boy Hugo), but it's also hard not to think of "Robocop," "Rollerball," and "The Hunger Games." There's a dash of Jack the Ripper here, a dose of Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" there on Alita's face. Add a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Jeff Fahey, and "Alita" works hard to make boredom an impossibility.
The film's world is indeed richly realized, with highly detailed photo-realistic CGI backgrounds and elaborate, colorful set pieces. The plot may be silly, but "Alita" is big dumb fun. And if there's something a bit fetishistic about this doe-eyed killer, at least Alita's character arc takes her from naive and passively happy to powerful and fiercely concerned with justice, for herself and her broken peers.
"Alita" sets up sequels that may never arrive -- the hugely expensive production may well fail to break even -- but I wouldn't mind seeing more from the battle angel who can hold her own in a fight and offer you the heart out of her own chest.