Based on a manga of the same name from 1990, "Alita: Battle Angel" was stuck in development hell for nearly 13 years, with production pushed aside by writer/producer James Cameron so he could work on "Avatar." Mexican-American filmmaker Robert Rodriguez was finally announced as the film's director in 2016, with principle photography beginning in October of the same year. With Western adaptations of Japanese manga being received with all the warmth of a gun that fires depression, can "Alita" break the mold and be a quality adaptation of this beloved comic?
In the 26th century after a poorly explained apocalyptic war, humanity has been divided into two groups: the poor on the ground in one of the last remaining cities and the rich in the air on a floating metropolis.
On the ground, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds and rebuilds a cyborg girl who he names Alita (Rosa Salazar). The amnesiac cyborg tries to find out who she was before she was destroyed while being pursued by bounty hunters who want her dead. At least, that's what I think the plot is supposed to be.
The movie's major issue is that it's so unfocused. There's no definitive character arc that Alita goes through because they're having her do so many things at once. At one point, the movie is about her finding out who she was before she was rebuilt. At another point, it's about the father-daughter relationship between her and Dr. Ido. And at yet another point, it's about raising enough money so that she and her boyfriend can go up to the cloud city. There's no overarching goal that defines what the movie is about because the story is trying to juggle too much at once.
And when the movie does try to be about something it does it about as generically as possible. The class metaphor is ripped off from "Mortal Engines" and is about as subtle. The identity stuff is ripped straight from "Ghost in the Shell" and "Blade Runner." And the screenplay is a giant pile of cliches that might've been popular in 1993.
And the sad thing is that there are hints of interesting ideas that probably worked well in the manga. The high-speed death-ball game they play looks like fun and it makes for really good action scenes. The cyborg culture is interesting and even the bounty hunters are kind of cool in a nostalgic "I would've found this awesome in middle school" kind of way.
But, again, the problem comes when the filmmakers try to cram in too many ideas at once into a 2-hour movie. With so many ideas and plot points crammed together with so little room to breathe, you have to wonder why they didn't just make this the first season of a TV show. Of course, without the film budget you couldn't get the eye-popping visuals, which are genuinely amazing, but lesser visuals are a small price to pay for a good story.
The cast is universally boring. Waltz tries his best, but even his trademark onscreen charm isn't enough to offset the awful script and uneven character they've given him to play. Salazar alternates between being genuinely likable and incredibly wooden. Jennifer Connelly is here for absolutely no reason. Even Oscar winner Mahershala Ali can't muster an entertaining performance.
However, let's make one thing perfectly clear: none of this is the fault of Rodriguez. Even though as a director he's relied more on gimmicky violence than real technical skill, his first swing at directing a major blockbuster is actually pretty good. The set design is pretty interesting, the visuals are all incredible and Rodriguez even shows some potential as a legitimate action director. The fight scenes and high-speed chases are the only parts of the movie that approach being entertaining.
In my estimation, all of the blame lays fully on James Cameron. Not only is the screenplay (which he wrote alongside Laeta Kalogridis) atrocious, but as a producer his fingerprints are all over the project. The film suffers from many of the same problems Cameron's empty opus "Avatar" did. Social commentary about as subtle as an ice pick in your ear comes hand in hand with visuals covering up a boring story.
Let's take a moment to talk about cliffhangers. A cliffhanger can be a brilliant storytelling tool. It can leave your audience on the edge of their seat waiting to see what happens next. However, what many people don't notice about cliffhangers, is that they are teases for future character arcs. At the end of "The Empire Strikes Back," for example, all of the main characters have gone through complete, satisfying character arcs that have changed the status quo of the series. The ending manages to feel satisfying, because the film has told a full story instead of only telling part of one and then promising to tell the rest of it in a later movie. "Alita" does NOT do what "The Empire Strikes Back" does. Instead, it takes the lazy road; it leaves the film's non-existent character arc completely unfinished, teasing completion in a sequel it doesn't deserve.
"Alita: Battle Angel" reminds me a lot of "Mortal Engines" from last year: a film that aims for "Lord of the Rings" greatness and collapses to "Waterworld" level failure. An awful script delivered by wasted talent in a story that I dare you to care anything about directed by a man who deserved better. Avoid it like Disney avoids letting go of Mickey Mouse.
Rating: Slightly more fun than a 10 hour car ride/5