de facto film reviews 3 stars

After being stuck in production limbo for nearly 20 years, the long-awaited big screen adaption of the classic manga has finally arrived.

Penned by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, “Alita: Battle Angel” combines Cameron’s gifted world building and Rodriguez’s energetic visual sensibilities to create a Sci-fi epic that’s one of the most visually ambitious blockbusters to grace the screen this decade.

It’s the year 2563, 300 years after a catastrophe known as “The Fall” has shaped the world into a devastated landscape. The lower class citizens now live in the grungy metropolis of Iron City, where the rich and powerful live in the sky city of Zalem. No one is allowed to travel from one city to the other leaving everyone stuck in their respective worlds. When a robotic doctor, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), discovers parts of a deactivated cyborg in a scrapyard and brings those parts to life in a new body, Alita is born. Like a futuristic Pinocchio story, Alita goes on a quest to discover who is, while also learning what its like to live.

Enough can’t be said about the effects work. Done by WETA Digital, the masterminds behind “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the most recent “Planet of the Apes” films, the technology involved in bringing this world and these characters to life is truly astonishing. Alita is a character that looks and feels as real as any other character you’ve seen on screen. This is groundbreaking VFX and will be remembered as a touchstone in filmmaking technology.

Despite the amount of CG, there are a good deal of practical effects. The mix of practical of CG effects make this world feel lived in and real, rather than feeling like a group of actors standing around a green screen. This is beautifully realized in some of the best 3D in years.

Starring as Alita, Rosa Salazar is remarkable. Similar to performance-capture pioneer, Andy Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), Salazar brings such humanity and charm to her performance that despite the CG transformation, her personality comes through first and foremost. Similar to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Alita is a strong, fierce warrior with a beating heart that’s sure to inspire young girls and boys around the world.

Apart from just Salazar, “Alita” boasts quite an ensemble cast, including a few surprise cameos. Christoph Waltz brings a great deal of warmth to his Dr. Ido, the father figure to Alita. Jennifer Connelly is always a welcomes presence as the mysterious and conflicted, Chiren. Mahershala Ali, totally underused, plays the villainous, Vector. Ali is saddled with some of the worst dialogue in the film, and isn’t able to make much of an impression, leaving his character to be nothing more than a generic baddie we’ve seen countless times over.

Many of the robotic antagonists are played by a number of great character actors. Jackie Earle Haley shows up as the hulking, Grewishka. Partly because of the impressive character design, but Haley’s chameleon-like presence helps the massive cyborg henchman feel genuinely menacing and isn’t just another CG blob so many blockbusters have grown accustomed to creating.

Ed Skrein makes an impression as the swaggering hunter warrior, Zapan. Skrein, who is fully robotic apart from his face, is an interesting character that only gets a few moments to showcase what potential he carries.

However, the biggest weak link in the cast falls on a fairly important character. Keean Johnson’s Hugo, Alita’s love interest, is nothing more than pretty face. It’s not to say Johnson is a bad actor, I haven’t seen him in anything else to judge otherwise, but he never registers and is consistently flat.

The romantic subplot might be one of the biggest downfalls of “Alita: Battle Angel”. Both Salazar and Johnson fail to create any chemistry with one another and much of the writing between them is downright cringe-worthy. The already flimsy final act doesn’t sail any smoothly given it relies heavily on their romance.

Adapting the iconic manga is no easy task and although the screenplay by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis does its best to fill as much material as possible within the confines of a clear 2 hour narrative, the film does ultimately feel a bit episodic. The third act especially has very little build-up the the final battle. However. much like Alita herself, the film has a peppy, infectious attitude that makes it hard to root against it.

Despite not being behind the camera, James Cameron’s stamp is felt all over the film, for better or worse (mostly better). The world building and sense of wonder feels very similar to “Avatar” while still coming off as fresh. When it comes to over sentimentality and cheesy moments, you’re also reminded this comes from Cameron. It also lacks a critical philosophical edge needed for this type of material.

Director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), this time only behind the directing chair as opposed to numerous other titles he helms on his other, smaller projects, brings his energetic style to good use. By restraining himself solely to directing duties, Rodriguez is able to flourish with his visual expertise and get some really strong performances.

The action sequences in particular are astonishing. The films Gladiator-meets-Speed Racer inspired bloodsport motorball provides the films most rousing and suspenseful set piece.

“Alita: Battle Angel” is a live-action anime come to life. Cameron and Rodriguez join forces to create a fresh new Sci-fi tale that blends a fascinating world with otherworldly visuals and a winning performance from star Rosa Salazar that overcomes flawed storytelling. I can see this becoming a huge cult favorite which is slightly disappointing because this is a film that requires the full 3D theatrical experience.