A technically advanced creature lies in stasis for many years; when it eventually awakens it doesn’t seem to know what it is…
So lies the problem with Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron’s long awaited adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga series – a good-looking, sprawling dystopian sci-fi that’s also a mawkish YA romance, which soars when it’s about cyborgs fighting other cyborgs and sinks when it comes to narrative drive and connection with the characters.
Oh and that’s also the plot.
Stuck in development hell for years, Alita: Battle Angel was originally a project earmarked for Cameron to direct. But when Avatar took precedence, Alita took a back seat, until finally Rodriguez was hired with Cameron on board as producer.
The story begins with cybersurgeon Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz), picking over an enormous junkyard that we learn is full of the detritus left by the war known as The Fall, which took place some 300 years before. This conflict left Iron City as a messed up dystopia overshadowed (literally) by a floating city above it – an elite idyll that the citizens of Iron City dream of, and frequently bargain to gain access to.
In the heap of trash, Ido finds the still living core of a young cyborg woman with a human brain, and takes her back to the surgery he uses to perform repairs. Here he gives Alita a whole new body, but when she wakes she can’t remember who she is, or why. As it transpires, she’s an absolute expert in the legendary but now extinct martial art, Panzer Kunst…
With a rich mythology to mine from the manga, the world of Alita is layered and complex, and the rough multicultural melee of Iron City looks great (if rather reminiscent of Ready Player One’s “the stacks”). With Rodriguez and Cameron on board, it’s perhaps not surprising that Alita’s action sequences are the highlights, when her newly remembered skills and acrobatic prowess finally click back into place.
These scenes particularly work when the objects of Alita’s butt-kicking are “Hunter Warriors” – bounty hunters who stand in for the police, competing to kill the next target as soon as a price is put on their head, or the suped-up hench-cyborgs working for the shady Vector (Mahershala Ali).
Many of these are modded cyborgs – human faces on metal skeletons with pincers, or spider legs, or razor-sharp tentacles, or Go-Go Gadget arms. Blending CGI and live action, these Frankenstein’s creations look fantastic, though it’s only really Ed Skrein as the cocky, cockney pretty-boy Zappar who properly establishes any sense of character outside of that.
So the CGI is great. Except when it isn’t. The elephant in the room with Alita all along is the look of Alita herself. While all the other cyborgs just have the actor’s own features, Alita is rendered to look like a manga character. She looks like lead actress Rosa Salazar, but also not human, with impossibly huge eyes and hair that doesn’t quite behave like hair.
It’s a reminder that, of course, Alita isn’t actually human, but it’s also jarring, never more so than with the movie’s central love story between Alita and human male Hugo (Keean Johnson), which just doesn’t work at all. Salazar has proven a versatile and charismatic actress in other YA franchise The Maze Runner, as well as Netflix’s recent thriller Bird Box, but here it’s very difficult to care about Alita and even less so her relationship with Hugo. Maybe it’s the “uncanny valley” factor, maybe it’s the dialogue and maybe it’s the lack of chemistry with relative newcomer Johnson, who doesn’t have the charm or sparkle to carry the romantic lead role. Either way, the result is awkward, with a couple of potential tear-jerker moments in danger of being unintentionally funny.
With a kick-ass female hero standing up to a corrupt organization, Alita could have potentially appealed to the Hunger Games crowd but the movie is too violent, tonally messy and not clearly marketed as YA that it’s unlikely to hit for this audience either. A subplot involving the deadly sport of Motorball (think mecha roller derby with a ball), could have been a way in for younger audiences too, but instead this is dipped into but mostly sidelined for a clearly intended sequel.
The strong supporting cast including Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali are wasted, and a surprise cameo from Ed Norton also only serves to set up future films, which we’re doubtful are ever going to happen.
So who or what really is Alita? By the end of the feature the audience still isn’t sure, and we’re not convinced the filmmakers are either.
Alita: Battle Angel opens on Feb. 13.