There is a rather simple story lurking underneath the surface of the longtime James Cameron pet project Alita: Battle Angel, a film based upon the popular graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro and directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Machete, Spy Kids films).
The problem is, per usual for any film with the Cameron name attached, that Alita: Battle Angel is a tonally chaotic mess, an emotionally befuddled film that wants desperately to tap into Kishiro's emotional resonance yet instead over-stylizes its Sesame Street emotions and overstuffs its story with so many unnecessary moving parts that only those truly familiar with the source material are likely to resonate with this visually arresting hot mess of a film.
The simplified story is appealing enough.
Alita: Battle Angel is set several centuries into the future, an abandoned cyborg, I'll bet you can guess her name, has been long abandoned yet is founded by in the scrapyard for the dangerous Iron City by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate cyber-doc who returns Alita (Rosa Salazar) to his clinic. Eventually, she will awaken into a world she is unaware of and with no intact memory of her past. As she awakens into this strange new world, Ido strives to protect her from the mean streets of Iron City and from the truth about her past, though she bonds with a street-smart new friend, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who offers to help her recover those memories of her past. As the relationship between Alita and Hugo strengthens, dark forces present themselves that threaten Alita and those she's grown to love. Uncovering long repressed combat abilities, Alita embarks on a journey that will lead her to take on this dark world's grave injustices while discovering that she is capable of changing the world.
The real pity of Alita: Battle Angel is that Kishiro's remarkable work, immersed in deep meaning with core messages that would easily connect with moviegoing audiences, is that the essence of Kishiro gets lost in a script co-penned by Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis that only briefly snaps into the wonder that is Kishiro before returning to its Americanized ways more reflective of Dark Angel than Kishiro's popular graphic novel.
We already know that a Cameron-influenced film is going to be visually impressive, the performance-capture technology here stunning in presentation and far beyond what Cameron presented even in Avatar. When you add into that Rodriguez's knack for capturing the harsh grittiness of pristine worlds, Alita: Battle Angel is unquestionably Cameron's latest impressive technical achievement.
It's just a shame that the rest of Alita: Battle Angel doesn't live up to its visuals.
While I'm aware that some will argue, I like to call them the Forrest Gumps of moviegoers, storytelling has always been Cameron's weakness and it doesn't help here that the tin-eared dialogue is doing direct combat with Rodriguez's lighter cinematic touch. The only thing worse than awkward, paint-by-numbers dialogue is when that dialogue is in direct conflict with a movie's overall tone.
The chemistry between Alita and Hugo barely registers, though in this barren, chaste world that's not particularly surprising with only Jennifer Connelly's cyborg doc Chiren ever really registering a seductive note. Current Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali is mostly wasted as Vector, the local "factory" boss who keeps sending out the unrecognizable Jackie Earle Haley's Grewishka after Alita while Ed Skrein, not to be confused with Ed Gein, keeps pulling out his Damascus blade (no Freudian references there, eh?) trying to lop off Alita's head.
Sigh. Double sigh. Triple sigh.
Toss in the major plot point of Motor Ball and you basically have the last twenty years of high-tech cinema all rolled up into one Cameron epic being touted as "original."
Alita: Battle Angel isn't a disaster. Cameron doesn't make disasters.
Rodriguez does, but his worst impulses are kept in check here and Alita: Battle Angel mostly works off his strengths as a filmmaker. However, what Alita: Battle Angel also does is bring to the forefront the particular filmmaking deficits of both Rodriguez and Cameron. While it may seem foolish to keep bringing up Cameron, who did not direct the film, it's even more foolish to assume that Cameron was even remotely hands-off with this production. Alita: Battle Angel has Cameron's filmmaking fingerprints all over it and that mostly works to the film's disadvantage.
While Alita: Battle Angel is an immensely flawed film, it's also likely a film best seen in 3-D if the option is available for you because the film's visuals are its strongest points and they are even more impressive in the advanced technology. If you're not particularly concerned with basic filmmaking requirements like story, character development, tonal consistency and not bothered by the complete absence of heart in a film essentially about heart, then Alita: Battle Angel may very well be the perfect film for you.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic