[This story contains spoilers for Alita: Battle Angel]
Alita: Battle Angel is the latest attempt by a major studio to kickstart a franchise, almost willing it into existence. The film has plenty of behind-the-scenes bonafides — it’s directed by cult filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, it was co-written and co-produced by James Cameron, and many of the special effects are courtesy of Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s special-effects company. While the film looks appropriately snazzy, with no expense having been spared, Alita: Battle Angel stumbles because its entire presence feels like a windup for a sequel that may never come.
On the whole, Alita: Battle Angel is about a humanoid robot who realizes and embraces her destiny as a super-powerful fighter taking on the powers that seek to suppress the common man. In the film, set centuries in the future, Alita (Rosa Salazar) is brought back to life by a kindly doctor (Christoph Waltz), who gives her the robotic body he had designed for his now-dead daughter and treats her like the child he never had. More importantly, he wants her to avoid becoming her true self, a “berserker “ (AKA a robot who fights really, really well). But Earth is now made up of lower classes — the higher classes live literally above them on a floating city called Zalem that hovers above the sky — and they seek to gain their freedom from the oppressive dystopia in which they live.
Despite being based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga Battle Angel Alita, the adaptation feels less like a full story as much as an episodic series of events that are simply meant to build to a confrontation we don’t get at all. Everyone on Earth wants to go to Zalem, because it’s the promise of a better place; eventually, that promise is revealed to be hollow. Alita is mostly able to become a known figure on Earth by becoming a star player of Motorball, a violent hybrid of basketball, soccer and racing that’s overseen by Vector (Mahershala Ali), who constantly promises other characters he’ll help them go to Zalem. In the end, Vector reveals that “going to Zalem” is code for him killing someone and sending their spare body parts to Zalem for use by mysterious scientists like a centuries-old character called Nova.
Once Alita has not just won the game of Motorball to the crowd’s success, but also triumphed over the cruelty of Vector and his minion robots, she makes clear that she wants to take Nova down for acting as a violent puppeteer to those on the ground. Up to this point, we’ve heard Nova through other characters — he has the power to essentially possess Vector and his lead hench-robot (Jackie Earle Haley) — but only seen him in brief snapshots. Until, that is, Rodriguez cuts to Nova, watching Alita declare her battle against him, and then he takes off his glasses to reveal the face of ... Edward Norton, who smiles briefly, before we cut to the end credits.
Creative decision or not, it’s a baffling choice for Alita: Battle Angel to not show us what Zalem is like at all before it ends. Unlike stories where a fabled place might end up being something of an illusion, there’s never any doubt that Zalem is real — any of the characters need only look up to see it, even if they’ll never get there. But by withholding any information about Zalem (let alone the inexplicable decision to cast an A-List actor as the Big Bad, but place him under a weird white wig and strange colored glasses), the filmmakers of Alita: Battle Angel have made a bet that might not pay off.
The success of things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe have enabled other studios and filmmakers to presume that audiences always want to see shared universes and expanded franchises, no matter the title or story. We’re only a couple years removed from when Universal tried its hand at building out an entire horror franchise with The Dark Universe, a decision that immediately blew up in its face with The Mummy. And who can forget when Warner Bros. tried to make a King Arthur franchise with Charlie Hunnam? (Maybe more accurate: who remembers that?) In short, recognizable IP does not guarantee audience interest in a burgeoning franchise; for some audiences, Alita isn’t even recognizable IP.
Alita: Battle Angel is not without its charms — as you might expect, a film with James Cameron and Peter Jackson involved looks very impressive, and the 3D being offered manages to not detract from the viewing experience. The biggest special effect of all, as has been discussed for a while, is the motion-capture of Alita herself. While Salazar performed as Alita, her facial features have been heightened (including getting very large eyes) via CG; it’s an admittedly weird effect, but it never quite descends into the uncanny valley, in part because Alita is always meant to be a robot. But the visual experience can’t supersede the story — when it’s not building up to the possible confrontation between Alita and Nova, the film is introducing a saggy romance between Alita and a charming bad boy-type that’s never as charming as it’s meant to be.
Alita: Battle Angel is a big gamble for 20th Century Fox — though it’s based on pre-existing material, the source manga isn’t an automatically recognizable story for most American audiences. But moreover, the studio has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars to this story, in part because they’re hoping for it to not just pay off now, but in the future. Unlike, say, Cameron’s technically dazzling, and highly expensive, Avatar, this movie doesn’t feel like a full story in and of itself. Like too many modern franchises, Alita: Battle Angel is built under the presumption that the audience wants countless entries, instead of just telling its own story.