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Rock ’em, sock ’em cyborgs

Keean Johnson (left) and Rosa Salazar (center) in Alita: Battle Angel (Twentieth Century Fox)

Movie

Rock ’em, sock ’em cyborgs

Futuristic Alita: Battle Angel majors on mayhem, minors on meatier themes

A powerful teenage heroine, a male teen enamored with computerized female companionship, and a twisted view of deity: If you told me this tale was set in the mid-26th century, I’d say it sounds conspicuously present-day. But I’m game for futuristic sci-fi, as long as it’s more than cyborg combat and revved-up roller derby. Regrettably, the new film Alita: Battle Angel isn’t much more than that.

Based on a Japanese graphic novel, Alita is set in the year 2563, “three hundred years after the Fall,” a catastrophic global war. In an opening scene reminiscent of WALL-E, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, superb as always) picks through rubble in the shadow of burned-out skyscrapers. He finds the upper half of a cyborg with a “human brain remarkably intact.” Ido attaches spare parts to the female teen cyborg’s body, revives her, and names her Alita. Cyborg Alita (a high-tech blend of actress Rosa Salazar and computer graphics) has no recollection of her past.

The film takes nearly an hour to divulge all the background details, irking several reviewers. I found the slow drip of information puts viewers in Alita’s shoes. Here’s a quick rundown.

Humans and cyborgs inhabit Iron City. Hovering over the city is Zalem, the “last of the great sky cities.” Everyone below wants to ascend above, but few can. One way to earn that right is to become the champion of Motorball, an extra-violent, souped-up version of roller derby. It’s not clear, though, what advantages lie in Zalem (a clever name for a celestial realm), where Nova, a sinister being with godlike powers, operates.

“I found the only way to enjoy immortality is to watch others die,” Nova says while controlling—or possessing—Vector (Mahershala Ali), an Iron City dealer in body parts.

Self-discovery, the raison d’être for any teen, human or cyborg, consumes Alita, and the plot. She learns she has extraordinary fighting skills—good thing, because someone is sending “hunter-warriors” to destroy her. Hugo (Keean Johnson), an assistant of Ido with a sketchy side job, helps her unlock her past. They fall in love.

The PG-13 rating serves as an accurate caution for the film’s strong language (three instances) and sensuality but not its violence. Most of the fighting is ’borg-on-’borg, sure, but limbs and heads go flying. And one human is sliced in two. On the bright side, animal lovers concerned that cinematic depictions of violence against animals could desensitize viewers to cruelty against real pets will be relieved that a little dog’s unpleasant demise occurs off camera.

Alita, co-produced and co-written by James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), delivers top-notch graphics and lush sets but hardly explores its tantalizing dystopian creation and eschatological themes. Moreover, the film ends abruptly with few questions answered. Evidently, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Alita.

But if the sequel doesn’t guarantee more than cyborg combat and revved-up roller derby, this is the last I will see of Alita.