The trailer for Alita: Battle Angel was one of the most intriguing of last year. One of Margaret Keane's big eyes girls had materialized, from all accounts, and morphed into an ass-kicking cyborg. Alita appeared to be Ghost in the Shell for a new generation. The movie itself, however, is another experience. As popcorn fare, it really works. Alita lives up to her superhero name and it's fun watching director Robert Rodriguez's signature slo-mo sequences in a cyber environment. There's just little we haven't seen before. When cornered, Alita: Battle Angel retreats to formulaic safety, refusing to strive for greatness.
Yukito Kishiro's source manga, titled Battle Angel Alita in the States, is the kind of franchise material co-writer/producer James Cameron gravitates towards. Set in post-apocalyptic 2563, the hero is a female cyborg brought to life through motion capture technology. Cameron always wanted to direct, but his many Avatars took priority. Despite his fingerprints, Alita is not a Cameron film. It could've used his passion.
While Alita looks plenty cool most of the time with its robotic heroine and cast of Oscar winners (Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali), its weak storytelling is hard to ignore. Cameron co-wrote the script and his talent for writing strong female characters comes through, but everyone else is a caricature of some kind. Scenes feel rushed, dialogue is mailed in, and things resolve themselves predictably. Alita: Battle Angel isn't winning any awards for creative vision, but it does have other redeeming qualities.
Rosa Salazar is the big reason to see this movie. Her motion capture performance behind the title hero instantly makes her one the best, if not the best, CGI characters ever envisioned. Alita is a leap forward for the technology (and perhaps a glimpse of what Cameron's Avatar sequels will look like). Those big eyes are gimmicky but they really work. Alita may be a brain wrapped inside a metal body, but she's just as human as the rest of us. Somewhere, Frankenstein and Pinocchio are nodding their heads in approval.
Unfortunately, for Salazar, she's stuck in a tonally strange, sci-fi sports movie that underutilizes her greatness. Alita, a rare 300-year-old cyborg, is rescued from the scrapyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz), a robot specialist who reassembles and names her after his deceased daughter. Alita doesn't remember her past, but soon has visions that suggest she wasn't some ordinary machine. Soon she's taking out cyborg assassins, falling in love, dreaming of the sky city of Zalem, and competing in a futuristic battle royale called Motorball.
The many plot threads are not expertly woven and Alita fails to find much emotional resonance. The movie succeeds in flipping usual genre conventions as Alita risks herself to rescue the dude she loves. But their connection is mostly forced and kind of a head-scratcher. Doesn't this cyborg have more to worry about than romance? The movie spends other precious scenes mired in exposition explaining what happened to the world we knew. None of it elevates the genre.
In fact, most of Alita: Battle Angel is just plain weird. Ed Skrein plays the stretched face canvass on a villainous assassin-borg named Zapan. He appears to be an homage to Peter Weller in RoboCop, but he looks like something hellish and unfinished. Jackie Earle Haley plays another evil monstrosity that seems ill-designed for handing out beatings. All the cyborg stuff is weird to experience. Heads pop off bodies and are attached to new ones. Death hovers over everyone like a storm cloud. The world of Alita is full of excitement, yet everything seems familiar. It's a weird trip, but one devoid of any true invention.
Cameron and Rodriguez, as evidenced by the film's ending, are hoping Alita: Battle Angel is the first of many Alita movies. It's too bad they didn't concentrate on making one great one to begin with. All the pieces for success are there. But their film lacks the kind of creative risk that makes for great sci-fi. Big eyes can only take you so far.