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'Alita: Battle Angel' review: Robert Rodriguez's energetic mishmash

Keean Johnson, left, and Rosa Salazar, center, in

Keean Johnson, left, and Rosa Salazar, center, in "Alita; Battle Angel." Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

            

PLOT A cyborg is brought back to life, but with no memory of her true identity.

CAST Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson

RATED PG-13 (strong violence)

LENGTH 2:02

BOTTOM LINE A mishmash of many old sci-fi ideas, made watchable by energetic directing from Robert Rodriguez. In 3-D.

There's a great deal to say about “Alita: Battle Angel,” Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of a Japanese manga, but chances are you have really just one question:

What's with the eyes?

“Alita: Battle Angel” features a heroine who resembles a photo-real animé character: Skinny body, large head and two peepers so massive they take up nearly a third of her face. Played by a motion-captured Rosa Salazar (a matter of some controversy, as her character was originally Asian), Alita can be unsettling to behold, like a living Margaret Keane painting or Bratz doll. Eventually, though, the brain adjusts to compensate and Alita's orbs lose their fascination. The same can be said of the 3D format, which this film employs.

What's left, then, to distinguish “Alita: Battle Angel” from other films of its ilk? Like “Ghost in the Shell,” another film based on a Japanese manga, “Alita” is a hodgepodge of stolen ideas, tweaked just enough to avoid full-blown plagiarism. See if you can spot the source material: Alita, an endearingly tomboyish cyborg, wakes up with amnesia in Iron City, a junkyard civilization overshadowed by a floating utopia called Zalem. Because the only way to get up there is to become champion of Motorball — a lethal form of roller derby – Alita takes up the game. She also discovers, in mini-flashbacks, that she was originally designed to be a warrior-soldier.

The actors, to their credit, breathe life into this somewhat incoherent material. Christoph Waltz makes us believe in the kindly Dr. Dyson Ido, who salvages Alita from a trash heap; Mahershala Ali is great fun as Vector, a ruthless kingpin; Ed Skrein hams it up as an killer robot with a pretty face; and Jackie Earle Haley (or at least his head) plays a hulking machine named Grewishka. Keean Johnson, as Alita's plain old human love interest, Hugo, seems dropped in from a 1980s teen flick – he even rolls up his T-shirt sleeves – but he serves his purpose.

“Alita” doesn't look that great as a movie — it's half live-action, half digital, neither real nor ideal — but Rodriguez (“Sin City”) delivers several nifty action scenes (the bar brawl is the highlight) and keeps the pacing swift. Most viewers will probably find the whole thing a confusing mess. As for manga and animé fans, “Alita” is for your eyes only.

A SMORGASBORD OF CYBORG FLICKS

We’ve seen plenty of movies about robots, replicants and A.I.’s, but cyborgs — human beings enhanced by technology — are a fairly specific concept. Here are four examples of the genre:

RoboCop (1984) Peter Weller plays Murphy, a savagely beaten cop given new life as a cyborg in a future Detroit. With Nancy Allen as the woman who can still see his humanity.

Inspector Gadget (1999) The big-screen origin-story of the animated television series features Matthew Broderick as a security guard saved from death with technological enhancements. Think of it as “RoboCop” for kids.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) Scarlett Johansson played Mira, a human brain — or at least its memories — implanted in a super-robot. This adaptation of the Japanese media franchise drew criticism for casting Johansson in what was originally an Asian role.

Justice League (2017) Zack Snyder’s superhero film cast Ray Fisher as Victor Stone, aka Cyborg, a college athlete saved from a car accident with alien technology. Like many Warner-DC productions, it was a critical disaster but a commercial success, earning nearly $658 million. — RAFER GUZMAN

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