"Go easy on me guys."
The new sci-fi manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel feels nothing like a typical film from its director Robert Rodriguez, likely due to the looming shadow of co-writer and producer James Cameron. This begs the question, to whom does a film belong: The director or the producer? I think its hard for any James Cameron production to feel like anything other than a James Cameron film, but it's real obvious when his ideas are realized by another director.
Take any of the three non-Cameron-directed Terminator movies as perfect examples of this. If he's the director, his unorthodox and maniacal ways usually produce watchable and entertaining films. Keep all of the elements of said film intact but remove Cameron from the director's chair, and more often than not, the result is a catastrophe. In other words, only James Cameron should direct James Cameron movies because he somehow manages to overcome his scripts' shortcomings time and again.
This brings us back to Alita: Battle Angel which feels like a James Cameron movie without the courage of its convictions. The thudding and awful exposition dumps delivered by virtually every character here lack panache. Rodriguez has admittedly never been much of a visual stylist. His films all look fine but their more defined by their down and dirty homemade aesthetic. Here he was given enough money to make Solomon blush in order to realize his vision and the film is just sort of pedestrian. It should be coasting on its manic energy, but he makes things feel so controlled and calculated that they lose any sense of spontaneity.
That's a bad sign in any film, but for the umpteenth "chosen one" narrative thrust on audiences fed a steady diet of this storyline in countless big budget blockbusters, you've gotta bring something else to the table. That element that separates the exceptional from the average remains utterly elusive throughout the entire two hour runtime of Alita: Battle Angel.
The titular Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg from a utopian floating society known as Zalem, discarded into the slums of Iron City below, where she is discovered and given new life by cybernetic engineer Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Waltz then embraces his role as exposition machine, explaining to Alita the rules of the world which basically state that no one from Iron City can ever ascend to Zalem, even if they were once residents, as were Ido and his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly). Chiren now works for Mahershala Ali's Vector running a sporting event called Motorball—think roller derby meets The Running Man—and trafficking in bounty hunting on the side.
The story is not all that difficult to follow, but it's needlessly complicated by characters having ridiculous names like Grewishka, Zapan, Chiren, Tanji, and countless others just like this. Strangely there's also a kid with the rather benign named of Hugo played Keean Johnson, whom I was positive had previously played a shirtless wolf boy in Twilight due to his vague ethnicity and lack of charisma. His "love story" with Alita is meant to be the film's emotional core, but these scenes are laughably bad.
The film's overall problem is its simplistic narrative that encourages countless "hero moments" from Alita, designed to elicit applause breaks from the audience. Apart from some world class visual effects, there is absolutely nothing in this film that hasn't been done better by dozens of other science fiction films. Mashing up a bunch of tropes and putting a fresh coat of paint on them does not a groundbreaking science fiction film make.
Watching the film and waiting for it to take off and go someplace I had never seen before was disappointing because I always want high concept films to do well. Alita resides, sadly, on the low end of high concept, relying far too heavily on well-trod ground. Its intentions are pure, but it's kind of like the fifth person to show up to the pot luck with chili. There's only so much chili the human stomach can withstand.
Ultimately though, I can't grade a film on what its intentions were. If a teacher graded a student's paper based on what the student wanted to do, everyone would get an A. I can only render my judgment on what was turned in, and what was turned in was a fiasco. Aside from the visual effects, every element feels two to three more drafts away from completion. Alita: Battle Angel is a technical marvel, but it was released in an era when those come out on the regular. In this day and age, an audience requires and should rightfully demand more.
Images via IMDb