as reviewed by Daniel R. Browne
Format Reviewed: Digital/20th Century Fox.
After many years in development hell, a veritable bevy of trailers and promotional spots, and dollops of hype too copious to gauge, the James Cameron-backed Alita: Battle Angel (2019) - based on the cult Japanese manga of the same (albeit reordered) name - came into being, and the results are… alarmingly bland. The original manga, known as Battle Angel Alita in the west, was something of a cultish curio. It succeeded in harnessing many of the usual Japanese creative tropes, whilst establishing a quirky and likeable style all of its own. Like so many of its contemporaries from the glory days of manga, such as Ghost in the Shell or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, the scale and imagination of Alita was long coveted by the rapacious forces of Hollywood. Alita has thus spent more than a decade as an illusory bauble of the permanently distracted Jim Cameron, and though achieving existence under these circumstances is cause for wild celebration, the resultant Hollywood adaptation is a triumph of style over substance.
Alita tells the story of a mysterious and altogether bionic young woman (played with admirable tenacity by the relatively unknown Rosa Salazar) who plummets to earth in a thoroughly dismembered state, and is subsequently reassembled by the talented hands of Dr. Dyson Ido, as played by Hollywood’s favourite German-Austrian, Christoph Waltz. Waltz’ portrayal of Ido’s tortured soul is the best thing about this film, with his mentoring of Alita straddling a line between overprotectiveness and outright dishonesty, and this conflict is nicely conveyed. He lends pathos to Ido, which suits the character perfectly, but he also renders him sympathetic, sweetly charming and occasionally lethal: a remarkable cocktail, that owes its agreeable blend to the talents of Waltz, and not a lot else. Though the origins of the story are suitably enigmatic, the film does not convey this truth in an interesting manner. Narrative transition is a seemingly negotiable commodity, as we jump from one scenario to another, without suitable preparation. This situation is exacerbated by the film’s abundant failings in the writing department, of which Waltz is the first (but certainly not the last) victim.
The plot of Alita is not without some moments of daring, but this comes at the near-total expense of logic or consistency, resulting in something of a schizophrenic experience. Just when the story seems to be finding some momentum - such as with the reveal (and consequences) of Ido’s double life - it grinds to a halt, in order to focus on some unconvincing domestic triviality. The film teases achieving some dramatic heft at various points throughout, only to default to misplaced teen angst, or an unconvincing motivational volte-face. Finally, at the crucial moment, when events should be tightened as the hide of a snare drum and hurled across the finish line, the film seeks to remake itself as a shiny, sanitised interpretation of Rollerball (1975), before proceeding to trip over its own climax. Jim Cameron, the so-called ‘driving force’ behind Alita’s Hollywood translation, serves as primary producer and co-author of the screenplay. I am a massive fan of Cameron as a writer and director, and the various ‘written and directed by’ masterpieces in his arsenal are beyond questioning, but the simple truth of the matter is his script for this film (co-written by Laeta Kalogridis) is atrocious. It is a wooden, cringeworthy and insincere piece of cheese, that taints everyone it comes into contact with.
Waltz is so talented he glides through many a pen-shaped sticky wicket, but excellence is no guarantee of sanctuary here. Fellow Academy Award-winning alumni Jennifer Connelly (as Dr. Chiren) and Mahershala Ali - functioning under the dreary moniker of Vector - are given less-than-nothing to work with. Connelly’s performance is akin to an automobile permanently marooned in neutral, as she obediently chews on the cardboard offered her way by the scribes. She clearly knows she’s on a hiding to nothing, so she drifts through the film like an especially attractive vapour. Ditto the brooding, ultra-charismatic Ali. It is ironic that the Vector character is essentially a cypher for a more shadowy evil, as this film reduces Ali to little more than a conduit for one-note menace, and he accepts his fate with a professional grace. Overall, this is an offensive waste of two prodigious talents. Alita is a film that wants desperately to drape itself across the demographics, but its overall tone is too childish and unsophisticated to appeal to discerning adults, and so lacking in humour, self-awareness and plain likability, that a young person will be threatened by boredom, long before finding any genuine entertainment.
I previously referred to Alita as a ‘triumph’ of style over substance. The film is very definitely about the visual razzle-dazzle, rather than the dramatic meat in the sandwich, but even when embracing this truth, I’m not sure it qualifies as particularly triumphant. The technological transformation of Rosa Salazar into Alita is indeed breathtaking, and the mostly seamless integration of the digital and literal into the spectacle of the frame is never less than impressive. Yet, unlike the vibrant environs of Avatar, which have been cited as the creative measuring stick for any film of this blended ilk, the fantastical world of Alita remains inaccessible and unyielding. You never feel drawn to explore its wonders, or understand its heritage. It seems manufactured and artificial; exposition, rather than exploration, is our guide, and that is as clunky and unsatisfactory as it sounds. Director Robert Rodriguez has crafted a controlled and efficient glimpse into James Cameron’s design, but at no point does this film ‘feel’ like the director’s work. It sprawls without form, becoming bloated and shapeless, and the final look of Iron City - a metropolis born of the dispossessed, and with a junkyard as its heart - resembles a brown and orange sponge, with very little flavour.
Rosa Salazar deserves credit for embracing the mantle of Alita with such gusto, and she gives a wholehearted and brave account of herself. Keean Johnson’s Hugo - Alita’s love interest - is altogether less impressive. The script naturally does him no favours, but even with a Robert Towne screenplay, I’m not sure Johnson would be much better off. He fails miserably to convince as a ‘bad boy’, and there is little-or-no chemistry between the two leads. So, thanks to this arrogant misapplication (or misuse) of so many rich resources - alongside a truly awful script - Alita is less a sci-fi retelling of the fable of Pinocchio, and more Avatar for imbeciles. In the process, it also completely squanders the value and potential of the source material. Sticking with the obvious parallel for a moment, Alita struck me as being the film everyone thought Avatar was destined to be, ten years ago: a soulless technological showcase, with lashings of tinseltown glamour to paper over the cracks. It was supposed to be a catastrophe of epic proportions; existing to validate Hollywood and its more conservative impulses. Cameron proved them all wrong in 2009, but in 2019, having forsworn the director’s chair, lightning has not struck twice.
Alita is a fundamentally unrewarding experience, constructed in such a way as to take the possibility of success - and numerous sequels - for granted. Given its middling critical reception and decidedly average box office returns (which will barely see it break even), such hubris will likely receive the proper riposte, and this will be the beginning and the end of Alita’s journey. Robert Rodriguez needs to return to making his own films, because he might very well still have the knack for it. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to find out, because functioning as Jim Cameron’s tea boy is an unworthy vocation. As for Cameron himself, he needs to stop running his mouth and get on with making and/or finishing his innumerable Avatar sequels. Failing that, he just needs to be quiet. Alita: Battle Angel was an idea that might’ve resulted in a very special cinematic expression. Instead, it found itself caught in the crossfire of one man’s rampant inability to maintain focus, and the typically blunt avarice of the Hollywood machine. It is, in the everlasting words of the bard, much ado about nothing.