Despite 20 Minutes of Good Action, ‘Alita’ is a Legendary Clunker
In the world of Alita: Battle Angel, set in 2563, human faces are often planted on giant, steel-plated cyborg bodies, the better to compete in roller-derby death matches or to bounty hunt. Some of these human-mecha hybrids are sleek and sexy. But an awful lot of them look like clumsy, lumbering chrome-a-saurs with saws and spiky arms attached, ready to fall and not get up if knocked over.
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Written by: James Cameron, Laeta Kalgogridis
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali
Running time: 122 min.
The movie works like that, too. Alita comes constructed of so many salvaged parts and half-formed ideas that it feels ready to collapse at any moment under its own unbalanced weight.
And then it collapses. But it does have some exciting moments on the way down.
Two Great Directors, Not Great Together
The movie marks the first collaboration between James Cameron (last seen climbing into his own Avatar sphincter and never coming out) and Robert Rodriguez, a guy who knows how to use CGI ingenuity to transform small movie budgets into reliably junky fun.
They combine their talents on a long-in-production story about a warrior robot girl. Cameron has been talking about this one since before the release of Avatar. So you might expect the best of both worlds: a cheesy, free-for-all popcorn movie helmed by Rodriguez that uses Cameron’s tech expertise and attention to detail to make an epic thrill ride.
Instead, the combination mutes both of their contributions. Except for very well-executed action set pieces, Rodriguez directs with restraint, hemmed in by a ponderous script from Cameron and Altered Carbon creator Laeta Kalogridis. With Cameron out of the director’s seat, Alita lacks the meticulous polish and seamless feel of his best work. The movie has practical sets instead of the CGI environments Rodriguez typically uses, but they don’t pop. The dirty, blasted-out future on display lacks the specificity of films such as Steven Spielberg’s recent Ready Player One and Neil Blonkamp’s Elysium.
But the biggest problem with the movie may be Alita herself. The decision to make the main character an animated creation (played, admirably, by Rosa Salazar in motion-capture gear) poses a make-or-break proposition for audiences. Some will buy the expressive, detailed work and forget she’s a digital creation.
The giant-eyed Alita personifies the Uncanny Valley. She appears almost, but not quite, perfect, and distracting enough to throw off every non-action scene. With the whole movie built around her, the slightly-flawed attempt at photorealism remains ever-present.
Contrast that with Ready Player One or Avatar, where the digitally-rendered, motion-captured characters existed in virtual environments. Alita takes on a bigger challenge, perhaps needlessly. It’s easy to imagine a version of the film with Rosa Salazar playing a charismatic hero without all the motion-capture rigmarole. Just ask Tom Holland.
A Story Of Sorts
Meanwhile, the movie contains some sort of plot. Christoph Waltz plays a doctor and engineer who’s able to patch people together with prosthetics and robot parts. In a massive junkyard, he finds a detached head and torso for a teen-girl android.
He takes the synthetic parts home, as one does, with the terrible idea of fusing them with a robot he was working on before his disabled daughter died. Before you can say, “Daddy has issues,” he brings the girl to life as a naive, kind roboteen who has no memory of what she used to be.
Of course, what she used to be was a badass warrior robot who fought in dazzling moon battles, seen only in brief flashbacks.
The transition from trusting naïf to trash-talking cyber street tough happens too abruptly through a series of Teen Drama Moments and the killing of bulked-up bullies. Alita falls in love with the first age-appropriate boy she meets, a completely bland body hacker named Hugo whose defining character trait is that he sometimes wears a bandana.
Their make-cute conversations sound like they were lifted from late-‘90s WB shows, but less witty. Alita strives for a swoony Titanic vibe. But it actually sounds like Anakin and Padmé in Attack of the Clones.
Take Me Down To The Iron City
Everybody lives in Iron City, a trashy, post-apocalyptic backlot that supplies items for a gigantic structure floating in the air, the last of several sky cities where the rich look down on the people below who’ll never ascend.
Hugo gets Alita hooked on “Motorball,” a fast-paced robotic derby competition to which her latent soldier skills are well-suited.
When she finds out that her adoptive father doubles as a bounty hunter, chasing mech-criminals down alleys with what looks like a gigantic electrical dental hammer, she decides she wants to be a bounty hunter, too. Oh, and also a champion Motorball player. And Hugo’s ticket to the sky city. Teens, right?
Jennifer Connelly appears, playing Waltz’s ex, who’s also a doctor, a Motorball bigwig and a lackey for The URM, the forces keeping the rich people in the sky and the poor people down below. She’s a serious entrepreneur but not too serious to be ogled over in a stockings-and-lace getup manufactured by Male Gaze Lingerie Inc.
Poor Mahershala Ali, the most interesting actor in the whole enterprise, portrays an URM enforcer named Vector who apparently likes to dress like Blade. He’s the mouthpiece for the URM’s deadly leader, an uncredited Edward Norton with white mad-scientist hair who’s pulling all the strings and biding his time before “Alita 2.” The script gives Ali far less to do than he did as the bad-guy Cottonmouth in Luke Cage. Ultimately he’s as disposable as every other character orbiting Alita.
Fight On, Battle Angel
For anyone who can get through the leaden love story, unremarkable dialogue, and not-quite-there animation of Alita, some excellent fight scenes and sport matches finally allow Rodriguez to achieve directorial velocity.
A series of video-game-style boss fights allow us to see what Alita can do in the first half of the film, while a life-or-death Motorball scene near the end finally delivers on the promise of balls-out action. That’s the draw, not ruminating on the nature of being human or whether androids can fall in love.
A great 20-minute 3-D action movie exists among all the muck. Maybe someone will make a YouTube supercut of it. But at two hours, “Alita” roughly slogs along, an assemblage of parts with hints of a more interesting backstory than what’s on screen. A clunky sequel setup closing the movie doesn’t help.
It fails as a #metoo-era feminist rallying call, too. For all her physical strength and agility, Alita’s motivations bounce off the film’s male characters. Connelly’s character might be some sort of URM concubine, the film suggests, when she’s not managing Motorball players or shirking the Hippocratic Oath. African-American actress Idara Victor plays a nurse companion to Waltz’s doctor; she’s in many scenes but gets two lines in the whole movie. For half of Alita, I thought there must be some narrative reason she was mute, always giving meaningful glances, never saying a word. It turns out she’s just a character nobody bothered to write.
Even the title character is a male filmmaker’s idealized, Snapchat-filtered, daddy-approved version of a warrior teen princess. She’s incredible, but never real in any sense. It’s “But, I Have A Daughter!”: the movie.
In a Q&A shown after some advanced screenings of “Alita,” Cameron says he was inspired to adapt the popular Japanese manga to film as he watched his own daughter blossom into womanhood.
Who’s the last person in Hollywood you’d like to see write about a girl’s pubescence?
If you answered James Cameron, you have an idea of what’s wrong with Alita: Battle Angel.
Alito: Battle Angel pic.twitter.com/oLQ5kvOX2K
— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) February 3, 2019