After making his name on small scale genre fare like Sin City, Planet Terror and Machete, director Robert Rodriguez takes on his first mega-budget blockbuster with Alita: Battle Angel. Admirably, the sizeable cash injection has not replaced his signature style, with Alita sharing the same Mexican aesthetic and moments of graphic violence that are trademarks of a Rodriguez feature.

Sadly, neither of these striking creative decisions have had a fraction of the attention received by the digitally oversized eyes of the eponymous character. While they may appear strange in the brief glimpses afforded by marketing material, within the spectacular cyberpunk world this film creates they quickly become hardly noticeable. Of course, the stunning lead performance from relative newcomer Rosa Salazar helps greatly in this regard, as Alita is an engrossing and utterly compelling presence on screen.

Salazar dances between childlike innocence and burning ferocity, her broad emotional range a far cry from fellow manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell. Without a doubt, she’s the strongest member of an impressive cast, overshadowing Academy Award winners Jennifer Connelly, Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali, all of whom are considerably underutilised. Ali feels particularly short-changed, playing one of several throwaway villains vying unsuccessfully for screen time.

He does his best with the material, but the story of Alita: Battle Angel is too unfocused to allow time for sufficient development of its supporting cast. The film juggles a number of plot threads and jumps between them quite jarringly, failing to form a cohesive yarn and delivering one of the most abrupt endings in recent blockbuster history.

Nevertheless, Alita: Battle Angel is still an experience well worth seeing in cinemas. Rodriguez crafts a number of very fun action sequences, from a good old-fashioned bar brawl to a frenetic cyborg showdown in a dark and dingy alleyway. Undoubtedly, the best set-piece in the movie is the high velocity motorball try-out, which is an unadulterated thrill ride. While very heavy on CGI, the obscenely dangerous sporting event (think Robot Wars meets Rocket League) is expertly captured and never becomes overwhelming.

In addition, the film makes genuinely effective use of 3D. The fad format has all but disappeared from multiplexes over the last five years, but should you accidentally turn up to a 3D showing of Alita, you would find yourself pleasantly surprised. The involvement of James Cameron in a producing capacity likely played a role there, as the iconic filmmaker pioneered such technology to make 2009’s Avatar.

While the story is messy and the supporting characters leave something to be desired, Alita remains a thoroughly entertaining watch from start-to-finish. It delivers numerous exhilarating sequences that need to be seen on the biggest screen available, with Salazar’s remarkably moving performance providing the necessary emotional core. If the eyes truly are the windows to the soul, then it should be no surprise that Alita: Battle Angel has a lot of it.

4 stars

Image credit: Movie DB

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