On paper, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez teaming up should be a dream for genre nerds.
Rodriguez, despite a career full of misfires, whether they’re hyperkinetic kids’ films or blood-soaked romps, never fails to deliver a colorful vision. And it’s been a decade since we’ve seen anything from Cameron—who knows when those Avatar sequels will arrive, or if we actually want them at all.
Now they’ve combined forces for Alita: Battle Angel, with a script by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, plus Rodriguez directing. All the pieces of a franchise-spawning blockbuster are there: Cult-favorite intellectual property as source material! Post-apocalyptic dystopia! Robots! A deadly futuristic sport! A dreamboat love interest! Weird roles for Mahershala Ali and Ed Norton!
Slapped together, though, this $200 million adaptation of Japanese artist Yukito Kishiro’s 1990 manga series is a mess, unsure if it wants to be faithful to the source material or a pileup of homages to better cinematic universes. That’s not to say it’s not well-imagined.
It’s 2563, and the last dregs of humanity who survived something called “The Fall” reside mostly in a place called Iron City, alongside a population of cyborgs who’ve had various human body parts hacked off in favor of things with ratchets and pistons. The titular Alita (Rosa Salazar) appears first as a human face and brain grafted onto a robotic thorax, discovered in a scrap heap by Dr. Dyson Edo (Christoph Waltz).
Lucky for Alita, the kind Doctor Edo happens to have a spare robot body around the house, with which he can complete her and raise her as a kind of daughter. For the first half-hour, Cameron and Rodriguez introduce this world through Alita’s twinkling and digitally enlarged eyes. She learns the city’s smells and noises, discovers food (apparently, this universe’s robots can digest organic matter), and meets a local boy, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who teaches her the ways of the streets.
Iron City is also home to a underclass of cyborg bounty hunters, who increasingly resemble the machines from Battlebots with human faces riveted to their fronts. Some of them also compete in a contest called “Motorball,” through which they can ascend to Zalem, which lords over Iron City from a giant disk in the sky.
But no matter how imaginative and beautiful—and the design is sometimes stunning—of a world its filmmakers have conjured, Alita: Battle Angel is a goopy mess the instant its cybernetic heroine discovers her deadly abilities.
Whole sequences feel sloppily borrowed from titles that Cameron and Rodriguez either already made themselves or at least admired: Terminator, Titanic, Spy Kids, Blade Runner, Deathrace, Rollerball—there’s even a touch of From Dusk ’Til Dawn when Alita takes down a barroom full of metallic monsters.
What’s left is a story that’s visually indulgent but otherwise stunted. Salazar and Waltz try their best to achieve some sort of chemistry; while other moments are either dull and predictable or so operatic they veer into comedy. At one point, a character suffers what should be a fatal puncture wound, but “survives” after his friends decapitate him and attach his severed head to a spare robot torso. This is somehow preferable to death? This is body horror of the highest degree shrugged off like a pulled muscle.
And then there’s the emotional climax, in which a robot boy is sawed to pieces. Surely it’s meant to follow in the weepy tradition of Rose prying Jack’s frozen fingers off that floating door in the North Atlantic; instead, it sent me into a hysterical laughing fit that lasted through the end of the movie.
Perhaps that was inappropriate, but at least Alita: Battle Angel sparked someone’s humanity.