It’s been a very up-and-down relationship between me and Alita: Battle Angel, starting from its development history up to its release in theaters. Of course I would have loved to see James Cameron helm this thing, so knowing he’d be handing the reins over to Robert Rodriguez so he could work on four Avatar sequels nobody wants kind of put a damper in my expectations. While Rodriguez has had his day in the sun, it’s been a hot minute since he gave us what I deem to be his last good movie, 2010’s Machete. Since then, he’s delivered lackluster sequels Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, Machete Kills, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the second of which I admittedly neglected to see. Needless to say, the only potential project of his I’d be interested in is his fictional movie “Stab” in Scream 2, though I digress. Alita also didn’t seem to be the wisest choice seeing as less than two years ago another live-action film of similar ilk, Ghost in the Shell, failed both critically and commercially. Then the first trailer dropped over a year ago, and I still wasn’t exactly intrigued. I sided with pretty much everyone else on the Internet in thinking that the design of Alita’s eyes falls into the uncanny valley territory, even if it’s a creative choice. The fact that Alita was pushed back from a July 2018 release and then again from a December 2018 one should have been the nail in the coffin for my expectations, but surprisingly enough, with the more footage I saw, the more my interest grew, particularly because I believed the delays had more to do with it opening in a viable market and not getting subsequently slain by things like Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Aquaman, respectively. And while I never really believed it would be a cultural sensation or be viewed as a financial success against its $170 million budget, I became more and more optimistic of it actually becoming the most thrilling and intellectual sci-fi film since last summer’s Upgrade. But, if you’ve heard this hype train story before, you know only too well that it ends in disappointment, and lo and behold, Alita is about as good as you would expect of a film that has been in development hell for roughly sixteen years. Sure, the visual effects are lavish and technically arresting, but as soon as that awe factor wears off, all you’re left with is a narratively garbled, poorly acted, overly ambitious origin story for a character we’re probably never going to see again on the silver screen. Granted, I don’t think it’s quite as bad as the aforementioned Rodriguez movies, but when you’re going for a ridiculous, showboat-y, behind-the-back slam dunk, you better make sure the ball actually goes through the hoop. But sadly, Alita all too well exemplifies a film that was only written by James Cameron.
Set in the 26th century-city known as “Iron City,” Alita; Battle Angel opens on scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) as he culls through the waste that has fallen down from the hovering, bourgeois city of Zalem. After coming across the disembodied head of a cyborg with a fully-functioning human brain, Ido takes it back to the lab and attaches it to a body. Upon awakening, the cyborg has no recollection of her past life, so Ido names her Alita (Rosa Salazar), after his deceased daughter. Wide-eyed, Alita is quick to explore her new surroundings, as she establishes a crush on a local junk dealer named Hugo (Keean Johnson), who dreams of making it to Zalem. When Alita learns of Ido’s double life as a bounty hunter of criminal cyborgs, Alita joins the cause, inciting the ire of Zalem leader Nova (Edward Norton). As Alita continues to stand against tyranny and rise in the ranks of a deadly sport called “Motorball,” she poses as a threat to the very regime that sees to corrupt and take advantage of the citizens of Iron City.
Holy christ that was a difficult plot to condense. I didn’t even get to the part about Ido’s ex-wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, motorball exec Vector and vessel of Nova, played by Mahershala Ali, or how much motorball really factors into the system of oppression at the heart of Iron City. There are so many moving parts in Alita – both figuratively and literally – that I can’t help but pity the Netflix employee that has to write a one-sentence blurb about this movie in two years’ time. But, seeing as it’s based on a manga that ran from 1990 to 1995, I don’t blame Cameron and company for trying to do it justice by turning it into a dynamic, striking CGI landscape. Still, even at just over two hours long, Alita feels its length for reasons that don’t have to do with world-building. To harken back to the original cinematic science-fiction epic that dealt with classism and cybernetics, Metropolis, it is possible to create a long piece of speculative fiction that doesn’t feel like it wears on you with the introduction of every character. Yet Alita is determined to throw at you a slew of recurring characters whose subplots you’re all supposed to follow, even if they serve next to no purpose in this film other than to act as an eventual deus ex machina. This is such a plot-heavy movie when it should have been a character-heavy movie, meaning a single character, meaning Alita. We need to first get to the core of how she tics or why she acts the way she does before we’re to be thrust into this epic adventure that feels like a six-way game of Chinese checkers. It might have worked as an extended television series – barring budgetary constraints – but instead Alita is more interested in kickstarting a franchise and hinting at a sequel that we’ll probably never get.
One of the biggest question marks however going into this was the depiction of Alita herself, and the creative decision to throw buckets of CGI into her ginormous eyeballs. Hyperbole aside, I actually think it somewhat works. Would it have worked without the extra work? Oh, yeah, definitely. But it’s not as distracting as I had initially envisioned. Fortunately, I think Rosa Salazar was a natural fit for the character, as she’s fittingly able to embody the sense of lawful good that essentially drives Alita’s character. It’s not comparable to the kind of cyborgian performance done by Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, but it fits the story well. However, there are some less noteworthy turns here that ultimately dooms the film, namely that of Keean Johnson. Now I hate to crap on a newcomer such as Johnson, but he is way too flat to embody a character that supports much of the film’s emotionality. While Alita’s relationship with Ido is important in its own right, it is her romance with Hugo that is the spiritual core of the film, and when one of the performances is malfunctioning – for lack of a better pun – you’ve got a problem. Not only that, but Oscar winners Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are reverted to the futuristic stereotype of lifeless inflections and characterizations. Christoph Waltz remains the king of natural line readings, but he too is given so little material to really take advantage of.
And in their defense, the dialogue they’re given is extraordinarily hokey. Now, going back to when I was excited about this movie, I was expecting it to be kind of old-fashioned in its construction of a hero. However, that kind of clunky writing found a way to infect the rest of the proceedings as well, so much so that any thematic heft provided by the plot mechanics becomes robbed by poor execution. Of course, having such a long creative gestation period is rarely ideal for a narrative project. Whether you want to say this one was over-baked and thus crispy and stiff as a result or was left on the shelf too long and became stale as a result, both are true.
Honestly, if we’re comparing anime/manga adaptations – I know I shouldn’t really lump them together, but ignorant American here – I think I have to favor Ghost in the Shell a little bit. Because even though it’s way more emotionally vapid, it’s far less ambitious with its special effects and world-building – more grounded, I suppose – and thus hits with a lighter thud when it fails. You could make the argument that an ambitious flop is more interesting than apathetic mediocrity, but as far as my money is concerned, I don’t think I’d want to watch either. So listen to me when I say this, Hollywood: stay the f*ck away from Akira.
Final Score: 3/10