Release Date: February 14, 2019
Director: Robert Rodriguez
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 122 Minutes
Alita: Battle Angel feels like it was made in 1999, just with a modern coat of CG paint that only slightly brings the film into the 21st century. Perhaps that’s because it’s based on a manga series released in 1990 or because it’s essentially an amalgamation of every other cyberpunk science-fiction picture, but regardless, Alita is a messy endeavor that may push motion capture to new heights but lacks any other identifiable qualities.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and both written and produced by James Cameron, the film takes place in a dystopian future where civilization is split into two halves: those living in the luxury of a lavish city suspended in the sky and the bottom dwellers on the ground, who must scrap and hustle to make ends meet.
Christoph Waltz plays Dyson Ido, a cybernetic doctor who fixes up people’s cybernetic appendages, of which there seem to be an inordinate amount in this city. (But I suppose they just live in a world plagued with dismemberments around every corner?) One day, while searching through a scrapyard for parts, he discovers the head and torso of cyborg woman who, while severely damaged, is still alive. After Ido fixes her up, she awakens to zero recollection of who she is or where she came from. He names her Alita, and it begins to become clear she was once a battle-hardened warrior.
Rosa Salazar plays the titular Alita, represented in an entirely mo-capped performance, which looks incredible — if not a bit creepy — due to the character’s giant, anime-style eyes. Salazar’s Alita is an obvious highlight; beyond her outstanding fighting skills, she’s an interesting character with a mysterious backstory of which the film only briefly scratches the surface through flashbacks and exposition dumps.
Unfortunately, we can’t have a movie that features a badass female cyborg warrior without stuffing in a needless and eyerollingly awful love-story subplot involving a dreamy boy she meets on the street. These moments are where Alita’s scripting issues are particularly egregious, with some truly cringe-worthy dialogue, despite it being based on an extraordinarily popular series. It’s cliched, unbelievable and added no emotional weight to the narrative.
Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, Ido’s ex-wife and an associate of Vector (Mahershala Ali), two of Alita’s main antagonists and employees of the mysterious Nova, who we don’t actually see until the final moments after the film’s third ending. Connelly’s Chiren has the most nonsensical character arch of the film, and Ali’s Vector does little more than act as a meat puppet for the bad guy we never see.
The effects are clearly the focus here, and while they’re undeniably great, the random slow-mo and heavy use of robot people doing battle poses cheapen the action, making too much of it feel silly and over the top. If Rodriguez and Cameron embraced this over-the-top nature and had fun with it instead of making everything in its more than two-hour runtime so serious, it might have been a more enjoyable experience.
The cast is solid, but no one is given much to work with — most especially Idara Victor, who plays Ido’s colleague (a woman who happens to be a nurse and who happens to be a person of color). She is given no more than, what I believe to be, exactly three speaking lines in this film, despite being present in several scenes. Her lack of dialogue is jarring, which made me more focused on whether she would talk than whatever derivative sci-fi nonsense was happening in the rest of the scene.
The action scenes are a sight to behold, but pretty graphics alone aren’t enough to carry a film and Alita: Battle Angel is a prime example of this, with its dull lore, cookie-cutter cinematography and YA-inspired script.