After being pushed back a couple of times, Alita: Battle Angel is finally being released in theaters. The cyberpunk action flick is based upon the Manga Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro and is directed by Robert Rodriguez from a script co-written by master of the blockbuster James Cameron. And yet there hasn’t been much excitement to greet the project since its first trailer debuted over a year ago. While there wasn’t much enthusiasm for Alita: Battle Angel, there was one thing holding every one back from declaring this film the next big budget bomb – never bet against James Cameron. Now that Alita: Battle Angel has screened it’s safe to say that the film is a misfire, a film where all the amazing character and world design can’t overcome lethargic pacing and bumbling plotting.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place in 2563, 300 years after “the fall” in which civilization collapsed after a lengthy battle between civilizations. Though this battle is integral in the foundation of the world that we see, the backstory is mostly hinted at with details scarce except when convenient to the narrative. The aftermath from “the fall” results in most of humanity living in the cruel, gritty world of Iron City as the giant city in the sky, Zalem, hovers above them holding the world’s elites.
In a scrapyard below the floating city of Zalem, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg. The doctor surgically repairs the cyborg, giving it a new mechanical body. Dr. Ido names his restored cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar). The character of Alita has no memory of her past, though we learn that she’s a 300-year-old teenage girl. In what has to be one of the most ill-conceived ideas ever to appear in a blockbuster, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez gave Salazar’s Alita the eyes of a Margaret Keane painting. In trying to capture the big eye look of its source material creates a wildly distracting look for its lead character, basically marring a rather solid performance from Salazar.
Alita’s journey in Iron City play out on two different fronts. On one front, she’s introduced into the world of law enforcement in Iron City as the metropolis has no police force and relies on a system of bounty hunters called Hunter-Warriors. After discovering that Dr. Ido works on the side as a Hunter-Warrior, Alita is seduced by the world and quickly makes a name among herself with her new colleagues, especially earning the ire of the ruthless bounty hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein) The other front is the sport of Motorball in which mechanized men and women compete in a high-speed type of roller derby on super-powered rollerblades. It’s extreme to the max! Dr. Ido encourages Alita to ignore the vicious sport but she’s pulled into Motorball by a young man Hugo (Keean Johnson), whom Alita quickly falls in love with. The big leagues of Motorball are overseen by Vector (Mahershala Ali), an unscrupulous villain who manipulates the sport for his own gain.
Most of the characters in Alita: Battle Angel are motivated by their desires to leave behind the surface world and ascend to a life of privilege in Zalem. Dr. Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) is manipulated into serving Vector with promises of a grand life above. Hugo works to fulfill his dream of having enough money to enter the gilded city in the sky. But Rodriguez and screenwriters Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis never take us to the mythical world above, so it’s built up as a myth within reach but beyond our grasp. It wouldn’t be that much of a letdown had the film not invested so much in the mythology of this city in the sky and the mysterious man who controls the world above and below only to leave it all unresolved in the hopes of setting up a sequel.
Because Alita: Battle Angel is intended to be a franchise starter it feels frustratingly incomplete. For all the moving parts – and there are a lot – whirling around this busy narrative, the conclusion of Alita feels incredibly anticlimactic as it resolves very little before ending with a tease for future sequels. Anticlimax is a common theme running through Alita as the clunky script by Cameron and Kalogridis fails to bring any stakes to the meticulously crafted action sequences. Robert Rodriguez never finds a flow to the material as it stumbles between half-realized plotlines, and Rodriguez’s clumsy handling of the narrative bring all the flaws of the script bubbling to the surface.
Don’t get me wrong. Alita: Battle Angel does have some fantastic visuals. The design and special effects teams did tremendous work in creating a unique world populated with unique characters. This film at times has a real look. However, no matter how big Rodriguez and Cameron go with the action, there’s never any reason to care about what’s happening. The film is bereft of tension. The clumsiness of the storytelling on display ensures that any time something might arise to provide our characters with a setback, the audience has already been made aware of the resolution through expository dialogue in the preceding scene. The emotional content of Alita also falls flat because the dialogue is so goofily earnest that most lines meant to elicit emotion bring laughter instead.
Alita: Battle Angel will have a cult audience for its spectacular visuals and its unique worldbuilding. The film is a step forward for Robert Rodriguez, who had trapped himself some truly awful exercises in exploitation before helming this blockbuster. However, Alita: Battle Angel never coalesces into an interesting whole. The film has segments that are interesting only to be undone by needless mystery slowing down a story already suffering from pacing issues. The film fails as a tale of empowerment because so much of the character’s strength comes from her creation, and it doesn’t help that the film’s heroine finds herself ensnared in a toxic romantic relationship for no other reason than the film needed a romantic angle. James Cameron’s strong female characters of the past helped reshape the modern blockbuster, but the archetype he molded in the ‘80s and ‘90s doesn’t work in 2019. You don’t need a set of incredibly large eyes to see that Alita: Battle Angel is a movie rife with problems.
Alita: Battle Angel
An ambitious but frustratingly incomplete blockbuster, Alita: Battle Angel takes us into a unique, fantastical world but the film is saddled with a clunky script that makes every moment of eye-popping action completely hollow.