Alita: Battle Angel

Do We Really Need 'Alita: Battle Angel'?

Playboy's Stephen Rebello reviews the sci-fi extravaganza from James Cameron

Courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Director James Cameron spent the better part of 20 years trying to hit us with Alita: Battle Angel, his big-screen version of Yukito Kishiro’s action-heavy, post-apocalyptic science-fiction cult manga Gunnm. It would be hard to fault Cameron for his lack of commitment. After all, the obsessive, exacting moviemaker wrote a massive screenplay based on Kishiro’s first two installments, along with 600 pages of notes for sequels.

Waiting for movie technology to catch up with his vision, he instead busied himself with launching Jessica Alba on TV’s Dark Angel and poured himself into every aspect of making Avatar, while devising a raft of yet-to-be-made Avatar sequels. With Cameron immersed in this and that, he let writer-director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) try and carve out a manageable script, and then in 2016, handed over the directing reins to him. 
What hands-on executive producer Cameron has to show after all this time is a technically ambitious cyberpunk movie that is wonderfully imaginative and looks startlingly compelling but feels old-school and anemic, like something we’ve already seen done better in such movies as Rollerball, Ex Machina, Ghost in the Shell, Ready Player One and a half-dozen other futuristic action movies. Who is this movie made for, anyway?

The episodic, exposition-heavy action, as scripted by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Altered Carbon) is set in 2563, 300 years after a worldwide cataclysmic war known as The Fall. In grungy, trash-strewn Iron City, benevolent, Geppetto-like Dr. Ido Dyson (Christoph Waltz doing lovely work) finds the spare head and torso of a cyborg with the still-functioning brain of a teenage young woman. He painstakingly rebuilds his techno-Pinocchio, christens her Alita (after his murdered daughter) but must watch helplessly as it dawns on super-cartoony-eyed Alita (played by Rosa Salazar)—a performance-capture heroine who is surely a refugee from the Valley of the Uncanny Dolls—that she was originally built to attack and unleash mayhem. Bourne Identity meets Ghost in the Shell, anyone? 
It’s a good thing, too, because Iron City is filthy with roving street gangs on the hunt for robots to strip clean for spare parts. The local sport is motorball (i.e., rollerball), in which mechanical players try to slaughter each other while nipping at each other in velodrome vehicles. Crime kingpin Victor (Mahershala Ali) runs this lucrative scam—win and you’re transported to Zalem; die and you’re, well, dead. Meanwhile, floating above Iron City is Alita’s old home, the aforementioned Zalem, a city inhabited by the filthy rich and well-connected and pretty much ruled by a super-creep villain called Nova. His skill is snatching souls and making his victim’s eyes glow blue.

Are you getting all this? Because there are more key figures the script requires Alita to meet, most of whom are not only maddeningly vague but also act as information dumps that we’re somehow expected to figure out, let alone care about. There’s deeply weird robotics ace and Ido’s ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly); two dastardly, intriguing "Hunter/Warriors" called Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and Zapan (Ed Skrein); and deadly bland street kid and romantic figure Hugo (Keean Johnson).

What’s the point of blowing somewhere around $200 million on boldly innovative sound and vision when it is built upon a script that just thuds along?

Alita and Hugo’s swoony, Disney Channel-ish teen romance inflicts on the audience Cameron’s weakness for sticky sweet, comically grandiose dialogue so clunky that it makes some of his Titanic and Avatar eye-rollers sound like Shakespeare by comparison. On the upside, the action sequences, CGI stuff and visual wonders created by WETA Digital are heart-pumping stuff—clear, clean, fantastic to look at, edited like blazes. And the highly welcome flashes of Rodriguez’s gonzo humor ring out clear as day.

But, come on—what’s the point of blowing somewhere around $200 million on boldly innovative sound and vision when it is built upon a script that just thuds along, fails to deliver on some potentially promising plot turns and character setups, and drags it all down? Had Cameron himself made Alita: Battle Angel back in the 1990s, maybe we might all sit up and take notice. In 2019, it feels like a scrap heap of old spare parts.

Alita: Battle Angel

Imagination and eye-catching visuals abound—although they ought to, given the film's equally stunning budget
The film never lives up to its promise, and it might make you wonder why it exists
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 bunnies

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