The cyborg heroine of "Alita: Battle Angel" is just a slip of a girl with huge eyes in a face shaped like an inverted teardrop. When she puts an urgent question to a boy she really cares about, you hope he comes up with the right answer. "Does it bother you that I'm not completely human?" she asks shyly. "You are the most human person I have ever met," he replies. Love may not always be blind, but sometimes it suffers from selective sight.
Who can blame him, though? Alita does have a human brain. And she's willing to give the boy her heart. She takes it right out of her chest, exposing the red and blue tubes that connect it to her body, which is an exquisite piece of machinery, the product of truly special effects. I wish I could have been as accepting, but I wasn't. I loved watching this sci-fi spectacle's moving parts, but I couldn't get past its dim bulb of a brain.
The film was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who did “From Dusk Till Dawn" and "Sin City," and it comes by its visual elegance honestly, since the technology derives from James Cameron's "Avatar." Cameron produced this one, and the digital wizardry, as in "Avatar;" came out of the Weta Digital facility in New Zealand.
Alita is played via motion-capture by Rosa Salazar. She doesn't have much of a body at the outset. She is, to put it delicately, a disjointed wreck when a kindly doctor named Dyson Ido-played by Christoph Waltz-finds her lying in a pile of garbage in a city that resembles the one in "Wall-E," 1 except with people (and cyborgs, and people hunting cyborgs.) Alita doesn't know who she is or where she came from, but Ido has the chops to give her a new body, and the smarts to help her find her identity--he's the Henry Higgins and she's the Eliza Dolittle of this post-apocalyptic "Pygmalion."
The theme is empowerment, with a heroine who's the embodiment of embodiment. "Alita" turns out to be a superlative woman warrior, and it's fun, for a while, to watch her take on a succession of adversaries, some flesh-and-blood and others mechanical but all diabolical. Yet the motion capture technology leaches emotion from the heroine's face, even though it's designed to preserve Ms. Salazar's expressions. The repetitive combat plays out on the same few streets of the vast megalopolis. There aren't enough new ideas or character revelations to fill the running time, and the most obvious symptom of that problem is the story's reliance on an urban game, Motorball, that compares, unfavorably, to "The Hunger Games" and evokes, unfortunately, the peerless vacuousness of "Speed Racer." Every time a new Motorball round started, my all too human heart sank.
I'm Joe Morgenstern. I'll be back on KCRW next week with more