James Cameron might be the greatest American blockbuster director since 1980. That may seem controversial, yet Avatar, Aliens, Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and of course, Titanic, are a hard hand to beat. Cameron may not direct as much as we want him to (seriously, it has been a decade since Avatar), but he always has his hands in projects. In the case of Alita: Battle Angel, his role as producer and writer seemed to be the best way for him to approach the source material.
His interest in adapting Alita: Battle Angel was rather logical. The adaptation of the visually complex Gunnm manga series could be a logical successor to many of his features. His Terminators, mechanical mechs, and spaceships have often leaned on eastern futuristic designs. A cyberpunk story set in a battle-torn dystopia was right up his alley. He wisely handpicked Robert Rodriguez as the director of the project as well. The Latino filmmaker has always had a flair for being an inventive visual director, even when making children’s properties like Spy Kids.
Sadly, the combination does not necessarily deliver the best product on the screen. Instead, Alita suffers from an overly wordy screenplay that spoon-feeds the audience. Perhaps worst of all, the story suffers from being repetitive. While the CGI elements that Rodriguez brings to the film feel awe-inspiring at times, it still dives into the uncanny valley at times. Brought down significantly by Cameron and Laeta Kishiro‘s screenplay, Alita can never rise above mediocrity.
Alita follows a young cyborg (Rosa Salazar) of the same name as she searches to discover her identity. After Dr. Dyson (Christoph Waltz) discovers her core is still intact, he restores her. She meets a boy Hugo (Keean Johnson), discovers the game Motorball, and becomes a Hunter-Warrior, a bounty hunter who hunts down cyborgs. As she uncovers her past, a nefarious gangster Vector (Mahershala Ali) uses Dyson’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) and a handful of cyborgs (Ed Skrein & Jackie Earle Haley) to try to kill Alita.
That might be the simplest way of explaining the plot, but the movie ties itself in knots to get there. Scenes are overly long, and the screenplay nukes the audience with exposition. Every little detail is told to us, but given the importance of visuals in this world, we needed more show. Even when the movie tries to just showcase the awe-inspiring world where Alita lives, ADR dialogue tells us every little thing we look at. In the process, we’re dragged through the story. It weighs this two-hour film down considerably. When I walked out of Alita I assumed the movie was at least half an hour longer than it was.
The visuals for Alita herself can fluctuate between very good, and a very weird uncanny valley. Part of this can be hung on Cameron and Rodriguez for how they actually use Alita in the film. It would be one thing for Alita to actually be the audience surrogate in the film, exploring a new world she does not understand. That formula has been used time and time again throughout film history. However, the movie also uses her like Inception used Ellen Page. Seemingly every line of dialogue that Salazar gets to utter is a question.
This can become distracting when Rodriguez also has her seemingly overreact to every little detail. Alita’s face is entirely brought to life through CGI, so her expressions are either massive or don’t register at all. Her big eyes try to sell the emotion of the character, but the characters around her don’t react with as much pain or sadness. This gives the impression that she overacts every line of dialogue when the skin and bone characters are underplaying everything.
Speaking of the cast, Johnson really drags down the Alita storyline. It feels like every line reading was flat, and no real emotion ever pops for the character. In some emotional scenes, he feels distant and gives Salazar nothing to work with with the scenes. The character just falls flat from the get-go. Meanwhile, Haley has distractingly bad CGI for his character and has the weirdest dialogue throughout the film. His insistence on calling Alita a “flea” grows extremely irritating. The entire villain crew of Haley, Ali, and Skrein does not work. The film also wastes Ali, who has nothing to do in this movie.
However, it is certainly not all bad. The fight sequences can get very epic at times, and the way that Alita moves is very cool. There are moments of extreme violence that can cause the audience to get a bit queasy, but the story certainly supports it.
The motorball sequences are easily the best in the film, and showcase the best action in a Robert Rodriguez movie in years. Even the general world around the film feels extremely lived in, and it feels like we go to another world we could only dream of. The allure of the property is very real, but there’s simply too much to take on in the story. This movie is not bad like your Jupiter Ascendings or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Instead, it feels extremely disappointing, like we’re leaving a lot of meat on the bone.
Ultimately, the writing sinks this ship, but it creates another question about whether or not this film would actually work. There was clearly a cool story here, but jumping into a property that cannot work as a solo film, but instead needs to be a trilogy or more, feels like a mistake. As a result, we’re left with an extremely uneven film that buckles under the weight of the story being told.