We have to talk about the eyes.
There they are, staring from the screen like saucers – or, as some have pointed out, like the glare of Gollum – in nearly every frame of “Alita: Battle Angel.” If you believe the adage that eyes are windows to the soul, then the movie’s titular heroine has two huge picture windows in the middle of her digitally altered face.
The only problem? You might not like what you see through them.
The protagonist of this screen adaptation of a 1990s Japanese manga is Alita, an amnesiac cyborg voiced by actress Rosa Salazar, in a motional-capture performance that features, most notably, gigantic CGI eyes. (The tale merges live action with characters that are computer-generated composites of machine and human.) Rich in intricately textured animation and striking action set pieces, the film often lives up to its graphic-novel lineage. And Alita’s eyes are less distracting than you’d think. It’s easy to buy Salazar as the scrappy, beating heart of the movie.
Producer and co-writer James Cameron (“Avatar”) first became enthralled by the source material, Yukito Kishiro’s graphic-novel series “Gunnm,” before entering the world of Pandora, and he had originally planned to direct “Alita” himself. But after “Avatar” became a global phenomenon, the filmmaker yielded the director’s chair to Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”).
In the run-up to this film (which was originally slated for release last summer), the filmmakers fended off criticisms of whitewashing. Dr. Daisuke Ido, the character in the manga who finds Alita in a trash heap and becomes her surrogate father, here is called Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Some compared the casting of Salazar to the casting of Scarlett Johansson in 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell,” another manga-to-film adaptation.
Although Kishiro set his work in Iron City, a geographically ambiguous place that has more in common with Topeka than Tokyo, it’s hard to overlook the intentional widening of Salazar’s eyes. In fact, the whole movie has a strange focus on body parts.
The film opens with Waltz’s “cyberphysician” scavenging for body parts in the dump – specifically, grabbing an eye, wiping it off and pocketing it. He then discovers an upper half of the cyborg that will become Alita.
From there on, it’s hard to follow where this movie goes, in no small part because the film itself has trouble finding a path.
At times, it’s the story of raising a rebellious teenager, one who is trying to recall her past life and an infatuation with a meat boy (as cyborgs, or hard bodies, lovingly refer to humans). But then the film will veer, almost aimlessly, into a look at the bureaucratic world of the hunter-warriors who serve as Iron City’s vigilante-style police force. Crammed somewhere in between those two narratives is a sports movie about a death-defying hybrid of rugby and roller derby called motorball.
There is a bigger picture: In the year 2563 – after a battle referred to as the Fall – Iron City has become a melting pot of species. Chained above the city floats Zalem, a cloud utopia toward which seemingly every earthbound resident aspires to ascend. Success at motorball is the only clear means of upward mobility.
In Zalem, we meet the mysterious Nova, a scientist who can project his consciousness into host bodies in Iron City. The revelation of the A-list celebrity who plays that character is both abrupt and an unnecessary bit of stunt casting. Otherwise, several members of the supporting cast are woefully underused, including Mahershala Ali as the shadowy Vector, a bad guy whose body is used by Nova to unintentionally comic effect, and Jennifer Connelly as Ido’s ex-lover turned rival.
It’s easy to see why Cameron and Rodriguez might have been drawn to the story. At its core, however muddled, there are classic sci-fi themes of class and what it means to be human. So it’s baffling that the film goes to such lengths to show Alita’s sheer brutality. On the one hand, she’s easily confused by what an orange and a chocolate bar are, but immediately takes to them like a child with sugar. On the other, she’s more than primed to use her skills at panzer kunst – a made-up martial art form – to bash in the skulls of her enemies, or to dismember them without a second thought.
Even more galling? The creative team seems so confident that the world will catch “Alita” fever that the movie – after failing to tell one coherent story – ends in a cliffhanger that suggests there will be a second one.
Here’s hoping that someone digging through the rubble of this movie for potential sequel material finds a crucial body part: a working brain.