Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Alita is a movie almost 20 years in the making. In 2000, James Cameron registered website domain names that involved this property as a film. In 2003, he confirmed he was going to direct a movie based on the early 90s manga. And then delays began, and Avatar went into production, and other projects came about. Eventually, Cameron stepped aside, taking credit as screenwriter and producer. Robert Rodriguez came onboard in 2016 with the film set to be released in July of 2018. That didn’t happen, and the movie was delayed to a primo January release in 2019. All this is to say that this film has had so much time to be worked on tweaked and improved so it should be great. But there is a common theme in Hollywood where a film has a window between enough pre-production and too much that it overbakes. Alita was burnt to a crisp.
Dr. Dyson Ido is trawling through the scrapyard directly beneath the floating city of Zalem when he finds the core of a female cyborg. He completes her body, and she awakens with no memory of who she was before. He gives her the name of Alita, his late daughter. Alita learns about the power structure of her new home, Iron City and the power structure that flows through Vector and his factory from Nova up in Zalem. During a battle with some violent cyborgs, Alita has flashes of her past as a warrior, part of a war 300 years in the past that pitted Earth against Mars. As she searches and asks questions, she slowly reveals bits and pieces of her truth and leads to a showdown against the powers that be.
Cameron and Rodriguez have made a completely incomprehensible mess that is on par with The Last Airbender in cramming way too many plot points into a single film. The antagonist Nova is never formally introduced, quickly name-dropped in dialogue and then suddenly leaping to the most dangerous person in the movie 45 minutes later. There’s a confusing possession scene where Nova leaps around characters, speaking through them before the film makes it clear who Nova is or what is happening. This is how a lot of the exposition works in the movie. People say things in passing about events, and then later it turns out that is like, the most important thing that ever happened and the whole film is about that thing.
The dialogue suffers for Cameron’s attempts to explain the mythology of this world in conversations. The original script by Cameron is 186 pages with 600 pages of additional notes. Sadly, character development was left out of these volumes of material. I kept thinking of the world-building in Blade Runner 2049 where character very rarely delved into past events while talking and we learned about the power structures through seeing the world in action.
There’s nothing fun about the world of Iron City which should be at least a visual treat, but the CGI effect looks deeply ugly. Every cyborg appears like a person in a motion capture suit with a bunch of weightless empty flourishes added to their bodies. The lighting is bright, so all the flaws are entirely on display, and it pushes the falseness of the world. You’re going to have to have to suspend your disbelief, but it doesn’t help when the movie actively seems to be showcasing how unreal everything is.
Some actors are trying here, and others are downright embarrassing. Jackie Earle Haley as villain Grewishka is the only actor who is having fun and feels committed to his role. Christoph Waltz is perfectly okay as Dr. Edo and Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali are stumbling confused through the script. The film falls on the shoulders of Rosa Salazar as Alita who is just mediocre. I don’t know how much of her performances is hindered by the elaborate CGI being done to make her face look like an anime character’s, but I can’t see it helping her.
With all that said, I don’t understand why a movie like Alita fails at the box office, and the Transformers saga succeeds. They both possess the same significant flaws, but I guess more people know the Transformers property, so they go with the familiar garbage over the unfamiliar. There is a definite sense they thought a sequel was inevitable, but I would be shocked if another Alita film gets made.