Nearly nineteen years after James Cameron giddily reserved a website domain for his treasured manga to film adaptation, Alita: Battle Angel has finally hit the big screen by way of Robert Rodriguez and the deeply involved Avatar director behind the scenes. Though sparkling with Rodriguez’s flavorful style and Cameron’s devoted passion, the film is, unfortunately, an overall boring mess of nothingness that’s undone by its own ambition.
The world of Battle Angel marks the film’s high and low points, with a lot of average “bleh” filling in between. Set in the far future after a nondescript cataclysmic event known only as “The Fall,” the central Iron City is one of the few last habitable places on Earth. While the exclusive, utopian city of Zalem hovers above, the people of the glorified junkyard subsist on cybernetic body modifications and upgrades, a phenomenon that has developed an extensive black market of stolen parts and a bounty hunting crime policing system in response.
It’s all very exciting, and the manga’s source material no doubt left an imprint on the cyberpunk subgenre sometime in the 90’s. The worldbuilding is impressive and engaging, and even though Iron City can look repetitively drab, the occasional Latin American flourish (Iron City corresponds to Panama in this universe post fallout, an inspired choice by Cameron reciprocated nicely on Rodriguez’s end behind the camera) on a building or a cyborg’s body give the film that extra “oomph” to ultimately triumph.
Wading through the dystopian muck is Rosa Salazar’s Alita, an amnesiac cyborg with an advanced body core found outside of Iron City’s rubble by Christoph Waltz’s kindly Doctor Ido. Salazar is terrific as Alita, whose naivety and lively, vigorous zeal quickly endear you to the character. Unfortunately, you never get acclimated to the enormous CGI eyes plastered onto the actress’ face (a composite of CGI mo-cap, Salazar is never actually onscreen), an odd creative choice that is never justified through creative means other than the fact that, yeah, they’re big like a manga/anime character’s. Similarly, the film’s other cyborgs and special effects vary in quality as they’re often a human face slapped onto a cartoonishly off CGI tangle of metal and cables. Their designs are pretty cool, at least.
That’s about where the good things end, too. Waltz, Mahershala Ali, and Jennifer Connelly also give good performances next to Salazar, but they don’t get enough to do throughout the film’s scrambled plot. There’s no narrative; like Laeta Kalogridis and Cameron’s screenplay, Alita sort of just stumbles around Iron City looking for a purpose that never comes to fruition. She makes friends, discovers bounty hunting, is discouraged to pursue bounty hunting, she treks the black market, finds romance, competes in the Motorball sport, oh, and triggers memories from her past as an elite robot space cop from Mars, or something.
It’s a lot of stuff going on at once, and since there’s too much to juggle out of devotion to the source material, absolutely nothing gets its due. Cameron’s original script was apparently 186 pages long with an additional 60 pages of notes, and after being trimmed down to just over two hours, the aimlessly episodic pacing wastes some admittedly interesting ideas. The bounty hunting moments are solid towards the beginning, and together with the sketchy black market ongoings and a touch of good body horror, Battle Angel had everything it needed to succeed. Sadly, these interesting elements are never followed through on, instead opting to very jarringly tease for the future and focus on all the wrong things.
The Motorball (think Rollerball, but with robots) sequences, while cool, feel out of place and easily could have been excised from the film with a little bit of tweaking around their minor narrative importance. Additionally, Alita’s romance with Keean Johnson’s Hugo doesn’t work at all, and it’s given way too much attention for what he contributes to the film. Johnson’s acting is too plain, too vanilla, and, frankly, too baby-faced to sell the character’s sketchy nature well, especially against Salazar’s wonderful performance.
With little payoff to be found anywhere, Battle Angel slogs through its two hours never giving satisfying payoff to any story, narrative, or character beat. It never seems to want to end, either, instead setting up exposition after exposition for a sequel that may never happen.
The film’s got some quality action, at the very least, thanks to Rodriguez’s great heightened touch. When the fight scenes get going, they’re easily the best parts, particularly one riveting showdown at a bar for bounty hunters towards the middle of the film. Sadly, there are way too few of them to bring the rest of the film up, leaving Alita: Battle Angel an uneventful pre-meal course while James Cameron saves the environment developing his seventy or so Avatar sequels.