Good for James Cameron finally getting a win. His passion project (aren’t they all?) adaptation of manga Battle Angel: Alita has finally made it to the screen after languishing in Development Hell for so long it was talked of in the long-defunct pages of Cinescape. The title shuffled to Alita: Battle Angel in the intervening years, and directorial duties were handed off to Robert Rodriguez (taking a break from Machetes and Sin Cities, leaving Cameron to co-produce and co-write), but the finished product is no less indulgently Cameron-esque for it—yes, forcefully realistic underwater interlude and all. In a fanciful, post-Titanic world where four impending Avatar movies are a reality, Alita is just some of the first cautionary evidence that, even for the King of the World, chasing one’s bliss definitely has its limits.
Alita: Battle Angel cuts straight to the chase, opening on kindly scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finding the discarded, barely-alive remains of a cyborg (Rosa Salazar) in a junkyard centuries into Earth’s future. Ido takes the mechanoid home, fixes her up, reactivates her, gives her a name, and instinctively develops a protective, surrogate relationship with the amnesiac mechanical being. (That fucking Bumblebee just did this a few months ago indicates how ubiquitous the story is—even beyond the 1990 source material.) Alita, as she is now called, is imbued with that childlike, awestruck naïveté and compassion (she quite literally offers her heart to someone at one point) of a science fiction character trying to regain her memories, and enthusiastically drinks in the details of her unfamiliar 2563 world.
A dusty, art-directed dystopian burg, the film’s Iron City economy seems almost entirely dependent on cyborg bounty hunters (Hunter-Killers) and cyborg professional sports (the dangerous Motorball, scarcely veiling it’s mostly Rollerball). Hundreds of years since an ominous conflict referred to as The Fall devastated the planet, many people—like Ido’s ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), and Alita’s love interest, Hugo (Keean Johnson)—dream of making their way to the floating utopia of Zalem through, alternately, accumulation of wealth or Motorball championship. (“Think Battle Angel: Alita,” said Cameron fanboy Neill Blomkamp when explaining the social mobility in Elysium.) Alita gets caught up in both pursuits by becoming a Hunter-Killer and a Motorballer, despite the objections of the unabashedly paternal Ido, and runs afoul of Iron City’s nefarious criminal elements on the path to learning the truth of her powerful capabilities and violent past.
Even if her world is boilerplate sci-fi pablum, Salazar’s character is more than just a set of distractingly pronounced peepers: she and the wizards behind her motion-captured performance do some admirable work with Alita, one of the best-realized (but still very much Uncanny Valley-bound) digital characters to date. Like in many a Rodriquez or Cameron feature, Alita is a satisfyingly strong female character, but she’s also one with dimensions of tenderness and innocence, and a modestly substantial coming-of-age arc aided in no small part by Salazar’s sweet, expressively gummy smile. The Oscar winners supporting her (the increasingly wraith-like Connelly, Waltz’s backslash of a grin, and Mahershala Ali—here almost exclusively Hawkeye’d into an azure-eyed, mind-controlled drone) are paradoxically stiff in comparison. Rodriguez mainstays like Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, and Eiza Gonzále (what, no Trejo?)—as well as some oddball cameos—fill in the gaps.
As visually boffo as Alita herself are the (also largely CGI) action sequence—consistently, excitingly staged set-pieces that pick up the slack for a wan script that’s one part trope-filled sci-fi and two parts soppy, Cameron-brand hooey. Considering Alita’s origins as a near 30-year-old manga, it’s no surprise that its made-up fighting style (Panzer Kunst, a weightless, vulgar-sounding combat) and fantastical, balletic brawls share more than a little in common with ’90s video games. The calm, sunglasses-wearing villain’s penchant for monologuing wouldn’t be out of place in a Final Fantasy or Resident Evil, while a cyborg’s blade-wielding assault on some hulking sentient robots mirrors Cyborg Ninja’s crap in Metal Gear Solid. Alita: Battle Angel shares most of its video game DNA with Mega Man X, though, considering its variously-sized mechanized opponents, a father-child relationship of a forgotten robot(-adjacent), and body upgrades including an unmistakably stylized (and fairly manga-accurate) helmet. (You like that bit in X and other Capcom games when the bad guy sheds his cape, dramatically revealing a fearsome body underneath? Yeah, Robert Rodríguez apparently does too.) And, thanks to its abundance of characters designed as flesh-and-shiny-silver cyborg freaks, Alita: Battle Angel may thrillingly be the closest we’ll get to a mega-budget SilverHawks motion picture. (An image of Fahey as a separate cyborg character wearing a cowboy hat was unavailable at press time.)
Well done on finally getting his vision for an Alita motion picture realized but, while snoozing—so to speak—for a few decades, Mr. Cameron and his film lost to lesser imitators. Alita could have been really novel in, say, the mid-aughts, so it’s really a shame that the likes of the forgettable, similarly cybernetic woman manga-inspired Ghost in the Shell stole Alita‘s lunch two years ago. Just one year later, even, Spielberg’s far inferior Ready Player One already rendered Alita’s stacked junk metropolis and brutal competitions too little, too disquietingly-large CGI eyes, too late. (Though Rodriguez was no doubt thrilled for an updated-tech mulligan on the type of goofy, shot-in-3D techno-gladiator skirmishes he blew in Spy Kids 3D: Game Over.) With no help coming from Cameron’s ever-cheesy writing, Alita: Battle Angel is left with only its expensive visuals to rely on. But as neat as they are, they’re nothing any hauntingly fist-sized eyes haven’t seen before.
Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Runtime: 122 minutes
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson