Alita: Battle Angel is a project that’s been on James Cameron’s plate for what seems like forever. I can’t remember the first time I saw him attached to the project, but I know it was a long time ago.
Then, the whole Avatar thing happened, and Cameron the director got lost in Pandora speaking Navi and doing strange things with horse-like creatures. He went from directing Alita, to providing screenplay and producing contributions only.
Directing chores went to Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn) and now, after some substantial delays, the movie has finally arrived.
The first time I saw the actual character of Alita in previews (played, in motion captures, by Rosa Salazar), I found her super creepy with her big eyes and ghostly smile. After seeing her in 3D IMAX I have to say, something about adding that third dimension makes her more visually accessible. She really is an impressive special effects feat, blending in just fine with the 100 percent human actors and special effects backdrops.
The movie itself is rather absorbing for a while, a decent story about a more than 300-year-old android trying to fit into a dystopian society, along with having the dullest boyfriend in cinematic history (Keean Johnson). The convoluted plot has something to do with her amnesiac-self trying to remember her battle machine origins (interesting) and trying to become a killer roller derby superstar (not so interesting).
Looking through a garbage heap (that looks uncannily like the garbage heaps from Idiocracy, a film Robert Rodriguez did the special effects for), Dr. Dyson Ido (a superb Christoph Waltz) finds the upper half of a strikingly beautiful android. He takes some readings, discovers she still has brain activity, and takes her on home. He meshes her upper parts with a robot body he has lying around, one that was intended for his late daughter. He brings the android back to life, dubs her Alita (his deceased daughter’s name) and starts feeding her oranges.
Alita can’t remember a god damned thing, but it all comes back to her in flashes. She’s a big time, former warrior so, naturally, her talents will take her towards a career in killer roller derbies. That’s where the movie really starts to lose it. It’s an interesting movie about a young girl in an old android’s body looking for her sense of self, and even becoming a bounty hunter. Then, in a snap decision, she decides to go for fame and money in roller derby. Huh?
It’s as if the film has no idea where to go. It’s based on an original graphic novel that probably birthed the roller derby angle, but that’s an element Rodriguez and Cameron could’ve easily jettisoned. It comes off as a tech geek’s kind of Quidditch, a lame attempt to instill the Harry Potter universe in the world of Alita. Every second of this movie where Alita is skating around feels like a distraction.
There are many other killer cyborg characters with familiar faces on them, including Jackie Earle Haley, Jai Courtney, Jeff Fahey and Casper Van Dien. The cyborg characters are pulled off with varying degrees of success, from impressive (Haley) to downright silly looking (Courtney). While Alita herself is a surprisingly well integrated figure visually, some of the other characters come off as badly cartoonish.
Another subplot involving persons named Vector and Chiren (Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly) is supposed to provide the film with two super villains, but I never really got a handle on what the pair was actually doing. Thus, they weren’t very scary.
Now that Cameron’s little Alita diversion is out of the way, he can get back to dawdling with his funky Smurfs in Pandora for future boring installments of his CGI wasteland. Alita: Battle Angel ultimately feels like a decent idea that didn’t get his full attention in the end.