Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Producer: James Cameron, Jon Landau
Stars: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jeff Fahey
In the 26th century, a reactivated cyborg seeks to uncover how her forgotten past connects to a great war that divided Earth.
You don’t have to have read “Gunnm,” the manga series by Yukito Kishiro it’s based on, for déjà vu to descend while watching “Alita: Battle Angel.” The James Cameron-penned, Robert Rodriguez-helmed eye candy explosion cribs concepts from countless sci-fi adventures, advertently as well as incidentally. Classic clichés include a hero in search of an uncertain legacy, an evil empire oppressing the working class, even a colossally popular sport everyone obsesses over.
Given their résumés and respective passion for genre cinema, Cameron and Rodriguez of course know such tropes well. Just as knowledgeably, they exhibit the expected knack for employing these modules in an entertaining order that pushes ‘popcorn fun’ buttons as a slick, if slightly stale CGI spectacle. “Alita: Battle Angel” comes out feeling like an overly familiar fantasy, although at least it remains a visually engaging one.
Despite being dumped there 300 years ago, a female cyborg just resurfaced in a junkyard beneath Zalem, a wealthy sky paradise whose shadow looms over the blue-collar bustle of Iron City. For Dr. Dyson Ido, finding the discarded robot-human hybrid stokes memories of a daughter who tragically died, destroying his marriage in the process. The kindly surgeon/mechanic provides free repairs for poor people with cybernetic enhancements. His benevolence grows greater when he brings the ‘borg back online, names her ‘Alita’ after his dead daughter, and begins treating her like a typical teen requiring fatherly protection.
Alita doesn’t need anyone to look after her however. Be it an assault by a bounty hunter or a hard knock during a ‘motorball’ match, Alita inexplicably responds with impressive battle instincts. Fleeting memories of gunplay on the moon and sword fights with a mysterious mentor additionally hint at a past mired in conflict. Clearly, Alita somehow connects to ‘The Great War’ with Mars that led to Earth’s downfall.
More immediately, Alita becomes caught up in a romance with Hugo, a street scamp of sorts who secretly jacks cyborg body parts for Vector, the man behind motorball. Ido’s ex now sleeps at Vector’s side. She and Hugo are both beholden to a promise that one day they might ascend to a life of luxury in Zalem.
Who’s pulling whose strings in this weird world of serial killer cyborgs, mechanized arena athletes, and backstabbing conspiracies? Whoever, whatever, and however, you can be sure Alita holds the key to unlocking the secrets. The movie bearing her name only eats about 10% of the meal plated on the table though. Its slimmed down story plays suspiciously like the prologue to a greater epic this particular production had neither time nor money to afford.
Of the many movies “Alita: Battle Angel” echoes, “The Phantom Menace” comes to mind. George Lucas’ much-maligned “Star Wars” prequel certainly scoops from the same pot of murky protagonist origins, rebellion against a regime, and opening opportunities by excelling at a sport. More than that, “Alita” encounters a similar situation where its animated characters come packed with personality while their human counterparts predominantly pout and putter about like most of their muscles are frozen.
When action heats up, which is often enough that no one could call it boring, “Alita” stomps around with the hectic urgency any fan would want from a fire-and-fury show juiced on electrified energy. Coloring so much of the movie with blinking, pulsing frenzy causes casual acting to jut out sore thumbs. Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali are incapable of delivering poor performances. Yet it’s hard to ignore that their metronome clicks to a slower tempo than the VFX artists work with. It could be they’re only emulating the autopilot aura of Cameron and Rodriguez doing a work-for-hire gig that doesn’t demand the passion of a creator-owned project. Plus, a standard-structure script forces them to chew on heavy exposition or else stare blankly while waiting for co-stars to cough up theirs.
Rosa Salazar on the other hand, receives the best of both worlds via her computer-generated face. Alita’s expressive eyes, mouth, and postures present a nuanced young woman with a surprising amount of emotional complexity for an artificially rendered person. Salazar’s smart choice to persistently play up Alita’s humanity even in her most mechanical moments crafts a character who adeptly anchors an enjoyable slant on a prototypical ‘Hero’s Journey’ story.
Making one more “it’s like” comparison, “Alita: Battle Angel” might remind many of “Ready Player One” (review here) minus the exhausting parade of pop culture references. It’s nowhere near as taxing in terms of cramming copious details into practically every pixel. Yet the film can feel like a video game cutscene in both style and substance, which is either a boon or a bother depending on personal preference.
What with its sleek green-screen environments, including the ones jazzed with junk to simulate 26th-century slums, “Alita” likely qualifies as Robert Rodriguez’s least “gritty” film. Although “Alita” includes an augmented female fighter among other ripples reflecting earlier work, I don’t necessarily know how to find Rodriguez’s fingerprints on the film without the aid of a credits block. Seeming like a suit-managed exercise in basic blockbuster production, Rodriguez hasn’t been this close to a milquetoast mainstream movie since “Spy Kids.” Once again, whether that’s good or bad comes down to individual expectations.
“Alita: Battle Angel’s” obvious agenda of stage setting isn’t fooling anyone about its optimistic intent to become a franchise firestarter. (You don’t think Edward Norton signed on for an uncredited cameo because he had nothing better to do that day, do you?) There’s definitely smoke, although flames aren’t exactly scorching. “Alita” builds an intriguing world populated by a few cool characters, some of whom the movie spends no more than two scenes on. But it stays busy to the point that even chattier lulls don’t drain momentum much. Suspicion says if there is a sequel, it will be of the animated DTV variety because audiences don’t have as much interest invested in this property as its studio does. In the absence of future chapters, “Alita: Battle Angel” can still do the job in a pinch if all anyone wants is a two-hour flight of fantasy.
Review Score: 60