“Alita: Battle Angel,” based on a manga by Yukito Kishiro, famously incubated for many years in the nest of James Cameron. Cameron's plans were ambitious, natch; he penned an “Alita” bible, planned multiple sequels, wrote a screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, and positioned the project as the next revolution in sci-fi special effects. But Cameron eventually became distracted with his multi-film “Avatar” project, and ultimately handed directing duties to Robert Rodriguez.
The finished project feels as though it's been percolating for decades. Like Guns N' Roses' “Chinese Democracy” – the 2008 album that was 13 years in the making – “Alita” bears on it back every last moment and every minute decision that arose from its extended gestation period. It is now overgrown, bloated, and heavy-handed. It favors a particular type of mythmaking and worldbuilding (the kind typically enjoyed by the people who enjoy Tolkien's maps more than his prose) that might serve as a sacrificial altar for interesting characters, intimate stories, and complex ideas. Cameron and Rodriguez, perhaps having become too attached to certain notions, ideas, and set pieces, included everything in “Alita: Battle Angel.” Right down to the worst ideas.
For instance: The film's midpoint scene wherein the human cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) is granted a new robot body that pubesces in a matter of moments. The camera watches her thighs extend and her breasts grow like a sci-fi rendition of Growing-Up Skipper. Thanks to a limp line of dialogue from Alita's caretaker (Christoph Waltz, trying to make sense of things), her robo-puberty is meant to match her brain's maturity level with her body's, but one can't help but guffaw incredulously at the weird fetishistic undertones of the scene. Alita with her lithe, wasp-waisted robot body and outsize Keane-like eyeballs, is essentially the ultimate sexual fantasy of a generation of male anime fans. It would be easier to accept “Alita” as a tale of female maturity if 1) it wasn't directed and conceived of by men 2) Alita were given more character qualities than the usual action hero's steely determination, and 3) Alita weren't an archetypal "fan service" fantasy.
|20th Century Fox|
Not that “Alita” is focused primarily on the body of its young CGI lead; it is but one unfortunate element of a larger, far more cluttered story. Like far too many blockbusters of its ilk, “Alita” is focused on any number of vaguely confusing and uninspired sci-fi subplots, each cribbed from superior films and none brought to a proper conclusion. Like a season of television – or perhaps several books of manga – “Alita” pushes its characters through plots so disparate that it's often hard to tell what the bad guys are up to, and what exactly the heroes are fighting for. I'm sure it was more carefully explained in the source material, but – and I have said innumerable times in the past – if I have to read several volumes of manga to appreciate the basics of the plot, then the film has failed on a fundamental level.
Set in the 24th century after a massive war called The Fall, “Alita” takes place in a "Blade Runner"-like shanty city located directly underneath a seemingly lifeless floating metropolis that hovers above on a great disc. Occasionally the city above will dump trash into the lower city's landfill, which is where Ido (Waltz) finds Alita's abandoned robot head, shoulders, and brain. Alita is resurrected and proceeds on a series of adventures wherein she decides, in turns, to be an athlete in a robot roller derby, a human teen girl with an ordinary life, a badass bounty hunter, a Martian soldier, and/or a revolutionary. Working to stop Alita from achieving any number of these goals is a shadowy cabal of counter-conspirators consisting of Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly. The conflicts of these two sides have been visualized in a series of typically impressive action sequences wherein human/robot soldiers – many of them with spindly metallic bodies – smash into each other with the usual amount of technical aplomb.
|20th Century Fox|
But Alita herself is a nonentity. Salazar, rendered through motion capture techniques, infuses Alita with what humanity she can, and occasionally succeeds in capturing the uneasiness of a teen girl who is out of her depths in a complicated world she is just now coming to understand. But Alita is never given a central goal. Any time Rodriguez seeks to infuse his sci-fi tale with some fascinating concepts, he undercuts himself with another scene of dazzling CGI flash and another layer of unneeded plot rigmarole. Indeed, the central mystery of “Alita,” that is the mystery of her origin, is revealed by the film's third act. Alita's intriguing quests to become either a bounty hunter (wherein she would have to perhaps hunt her own robotic kin) or a masterful athlete (which would make for an interesting twist on conventional sports movie tropes) are both abandoned after the first try on both counts.
|20th Century Fox|
Rodriguez, like Ridley Scott or Tim Burton, has always been a more interesting filmmaker when he has a larger budget to play with and solid a script he can explore; Films like “The Faculty” and “Sin City” tend to let him operate at his peak prowess. With “Alita,” Rodriguez shows that he can indeed operate within the world of mega-budgeted cutting-edge special effects (for whatever that might be worth), and stage, at least in a vacuum, some pretty impressive action scenes. Perhaps next time, there can be a concept or a plot worth exploring.
Top Image: 20th Century Fox