A project that has been well over a decade in the making, Alita: Battle Angel is based on a 1990s manga and anime that centers on a cyborg teenage girl trying to remember her past. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s less-than-optimal track record in adapting from these mediums holds stronger than ever. Though writers James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis had years to develop their script, and eventually brought Robert Rodriguez on board as director, Alita is a muddled film that packs in action at the expense of substance and relies on Cameron’s worst storytelling impulses.
While the sets and fight sequences are complex and occasionally impressive, the over reliance on computer generated characters and locales are frequently distracting and at times unbearable. It doesn’t help that the titular character is hidden behind layer-upon layer of uncanny CGI. Played by Rosa Salazar, it’s impossible to tell if any good acting went into the performance of Alita—whatever Salazar is doing has been bulldozed by the animation of her mo-cap work. When the character smiles, the effect is like nails on a chalkboard for the eyes, so awkward and unreal that it sets the teeth on edge. When Alita feels strong emotions, her exaggerated features turn her into a sentient emoji. If she were part of an animated feature this wouldn’t seem out of place, but among average real-life humans, there’s simply nowhere to hide.
Set in the 26th century, Alita: Battle Angel is a story about parents and children, and about the intensity of young love… but both plots fall flat, and only serve to bring the film down. Christopher Waltz’s Dyson Ido finds Alita’s head in the scrapyard beneath Zalem, the floating city of the privileged, and he gives her a cyborg body that he had originally designed for his now-dead daughter. Alita spends the film trying to recall a past that was cut short three hundred years ago, and in doing so, gets into professions and activities that her new surrogate father figure would just as soon she left alone. If this had been a story about a young woman coming into her own, trying to discover her place in a world that she’d been absent from for centuries, we might have had some interesting fodder to tie the action sequences together. But it’s not about that, not really. The focus is more on Ido’s inability to handle the idea of losing another daughter, and increasingly about Alita’s relationship with a very boring boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson).
The film seems to think that the over-the-top teenage romance is a selling point, harping on Alita’s intensity as she reacts to her very first love. But Hugo is practically a non-entity for all that the film feigns interest in his negligent charms. There appears to be some notion buried in the narrative that the emotionality of teenage girls is a true power, that Alita’s extreme feelings are part of what makes her formidable. But that idea dies on the vine—it’s clear that the real things that make Alita formidable are her awesome fighting skills and killer training. Functionally, her emotions only serve to let her make bad decisions when the plot needs her to, and the end result is always her having to kick someone’s ass again.
The cruelty of the script is so overt that it aligns better with some of the more gruesome ’80s SF films. That isn’t to say that Alita is the natural successor to the likes of Total Recall or RoboCop, but it treats its characters with the same brutality, particularly in action sequences. While that’s no great surprise coming from a director like Rodriguez, the affectation used to come off as a stylistic choice in his films—here, it’s played largely for cheap shock value. Sometimes that shock value is so poorly rendered that it skirts into comedic territory, as when Alita uses the blood of a murdered dog as form of eye black or war paint.
Because the film is often thoughtless in how it treats characters, there are many concepts that are hurtful or downright offensive in the story’s construction. Ido created a cyborg body for his daughter because she had some unnamed disease that left her confined to a wheelchair. She was killed by a motorball player that Ido kitted out for games; the man charged at her in his escape, and she couldn’t get away fast enough because she’s in a wheelchair, making even her death as ableist and cheaply-written as possible. Ido also has an assistant named Nurse Gerhad (Idara Victor) who is always at his elbow, constantly aiding him—but the script only permits her two or three lines, leaving the one prominent black woman on screen in a position akin to set dressing. Jennifer Connolly doesn’t fare much better as Dr. Chiren, Ido’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of their dead child, whose costume choices all come off as absurd, unsubtle metaphors in relation to each scene she’s playing. And there’s the sheer number of times that random characters touch Alita without her permission, which begins to grate once it’s clear that the film has no intention of addressing it.
There are people who seem to be enjoying their time on the screen despite these constant misfires. Mahershala Ali is clearly having a ball playing the manipulative Vector, and gets a final scene that steals the movie out from under everyone with a wink. Ed Skrein’s Zapan, a hunter-warrior who’s in love with his own visage, exists primarily to be as ineffective and hot as possible—his pristinely rendered CGI’d caboose is the focus of half the shots he appears in, and Skrein hams it up for all he’s worth. Hugo’s friend Koyomi (Lana Condor) doesn’t get the opportunity to say much, but she’s captivating whenever she’s on screen.
None of this begins to take into account how much the film refuses to explain, and how little it makes sense when viewed as a whole. We never know why Alita—a warrior from a centuries-old army—would have the brain of a teenager. We don’t know how that brain survived in a scrap heap for hundreds of years. We learn practically nothing about the floating city Zalem and what goes on there, making it hard to understand why so many characters are dangerously keen on finding their one-way ticket up there. And while it’s likely that many of these questions are being saved for a potential sequel, they prevent the film from finding a unique voice among other action films of its kind.
After over fifteen years of development, we should probably just be glad that this one is out of Cameron’s system. It’s nowhere near as visually immersive as Avatar, but its script is just as bluntly written—leaving it with very little to recommend it.