Robert Rodriguez directing an action movie based on a popular Manga property with James Cameron writing the script is a hell of a prospect. Rodriguez has an eye for a good punch up and Cameron knows how to tell an effects-driven story. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s hard to tell, but with Alita: Battle Angel something clearly has.
We’re whisked off to the year 2563, a period in human history where a great war, called The Fall, has decimated mankind, leaving the poor in vast slums while at least one city in the sky remains out of reach.
Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is scouring the junkyards for spare parts. He’s a cyborg doctor, and humans are very much up for replacing their key parts with machinery. And Ido is a good guy, happy to help those in need and, to ease his own pain, perhaps build a young girl to replace the daughter he lost.
When he stumbles across the upper torso and head of an abandoned robot girl, his eyes light up. He soon has her walking and talking again, and it turns out she’s a really sweet, lovely young thing. So far so good.
He names her Alita, and she takes her massive eyes out into the world, with only a sliver of a memory of what came before she was dumped in the trash.
It’s a decent, if somewhat worn set-up, particularly when we find out a bit more about Ido and his own background. The world building here isn’t bad at all. Perhaps some of the depiction is a little clean and tidy (Hugo and his mates especially), there’s still plenty of promise. At least, until the script stops making any sense.
When Alita jumps on a table and announces the latest plot development, it’s confusing because, well, that wasn’t the plot as we knew it, and the film subsequently turns into a sprawling, nonsensical mess. The filmmakers are far more interested in setting up a franchise than a coherent ending.
And while the key villain remains out of reach and sight, clearly reserved for the sequel, a litany of other bad guys take to the fore. None of them with any logical purpose beyond muddying the plot and apparently confusing the audience.
How James Cameron has ended up with his name on a script that plays out like fanfiction is baffling. While his fingerprints are all over the special effects (Alita herself somehow avoids the uncanny valley), it’s incredibly hard to believe he signed off on how the plot plays out.
If any one of the bad guys were focused on, if at least one subplot was allowed a bit more space to breathe, then Alita could very well open up a new world of possibilities.
The best thing about Alita is Alita herself. Rosa Salazar injects life into a CGI robot that is a genuine, pleasant surprise while her switch to action hero is equally as convincing. Keean Johnson as her love interest Hugo is smug enough to punch, and Waltz ties things together with his mentor role, although he has perhaps hit a career low.
While the bad guy cast also do their best, it’s not their fault that they’re shorn of any chance to genuinely shine. None of them make a dent in Alita compared to the the apparent desperation to create a franchise. Rodriguez and Cameron have damaged Alita a lot more than half a dozen bad guys could possibly have dreamed.