'Alita: Battle Angel': Film Review

Never really takes flight.

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron worked with Peter Jackson's visual effects wizards on this long-gestating manga-based action thriller.

Twenty years in gestation, James Cameron's long-cherished manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel finally reaches the big screen with help from director Robert Rodriguez and Peter Jackson's digital effects team. With that kind of cinematic pedigree, backed by a reported $200 million budget, this kick-ass cyberpunk adventure seems to be aiming for the same blockbusting box office heights as the Hunger Games franchise. But a lumpy script, muddled plot, stock characters and tired genre tropes may dampen its commercial breakout potential beyond its core sci-fi action-fantasy demographic. While not exactly a misfire, Rodriguez and Cameron's joint effort lacks the zing and originality of their best individual work. Fox is releasing it across much of Europe next week, with a U.S. launch to follow Feb. 14.

First alerted to Yukito Kishiro's original manga comics series by Guillermo del Toro back in the late 1990s, Cameron initially announced plans to adapt Alita in 2003, before the phenomenal success of Avatar took him down a different path. Fitful spells of preproduction followed, with Cameron still attached and apparently unwilling to yield control to another director. However, Spy Kids and Sin City creator Rodriguez finally came on board in 2015. But Cameron remains hands-on as producer and screenwriter alongside two fellow Avatar veterans, Jon Landau and Laeta Kalogridis.

Alita takes place roughly 500 years from now, in the dusty streets of Iron City, a ramshackle junkyard metropolis huddled in the shadow of the flying citadel of Zalem. Ever since a vaguely explained apocalyptic war centuries before, traffic between the two cities is now highly restricted. A kindly doctor who specializes in repairing half-human cyborgs using scavenged parts, Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) stumbles across the battered shell of a former robot superweapon, nursing her back to life and christening her Alita (Rosa Salazar) after his late daughter. A born-again innocent initially unaware of her bloodthirsty past, Alita soon starts emoting like a normal human teenager, even developing a crush on handsome young robo-junk dealer Hugo (Keean Johnson).

Of course, Alita's innocence cannot survive her growing awareness of the harsh, violent and cruel world all around her. As she begins to piece together her warrior past, she implores Ido to let her join his shadowy band of cyborg bounty hunters. But Alita has little idea of the danger she faces from Ido's ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and her Machiavellian new lover, Vector (Mahershala Ali), who control the brutal gladiatorial sports tournament Motorball, in which heavily modified robo-rivals smash each other to pieces on a fast-moving raceway. Both are working for a sinister puppet-master high up in Zalem, who has dark designs on Alita.

Alita opens strongly with a razzle-dazzle rush of inspired design flourishes and suspenseful clues. With Jackson's Weta Digital handling animation and visual effects, the first act is a sumptuous sensory experience shot in warm colors and radiant, super-crisp 3D. Many of the film's 1,500 CGI shots are magnificent, from the superbly detailed wide-angle cityscape vistas to Alita's kick-ass confrontation with the monstrous killer cyborg Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a kind of Transformers version of Popeye with swollen metallic arms.

But the film's biggest CGI challenge is blending the digitally morphed, motion-capture version of Salazar's performance into an otherwise mostly live-action cast. Superhero and fantasy movies do this all the time, of course, and nobody has done more to perfect this technology than Cameron or Jackson. But the risk with Alita is the "uncanny valley" effect, first identified by Japanese robotics scientists to describe that unintentionally creepy moment when artificial humans start to look too similar to the real thing. With her saucer-sized manga eyes and stylized doll face, Alita sometimes seems to have stumbled on set from a Pixar production. Even using cutting-edge effects at such a high technical level, this Mechanical Pixie Dream Girl still looks jarringly artificial in places.

Proud Mexican-American Rodriguez adds his personal mark from the first frame with the Iron City production design, an agreeably funky steampunk barrio with Spanish-language signs and architectural nods to Latin America. The paternal relationship between Ido and Alita is also full of alluringly strange echoes, with distant traces of Frankenstein, Pinocchio and Pygmalion.

But all this promising material unravels in the film's second half, when the plot becomes bogged down in clunky exposition, illogical sideways serves and action-heavy carnage. Alita's half-remembered past life as a cyborg soldier is too poorly explained to make much dramatic sense, as is her driving urge to escape Iron City for Zalem. Her sappy romance with Hugo quickly becomes a dreary slab of boilerplate young-adult soap opera, peppered with excruciating lines like, "We don't belong anywhere, except together." It also does not help that Johnson is a charisma vacuum of white-bread boy-band blandness.

Departing from the original Japanese manga, Cameron and Rodriguez make Alita's unlikely ambition to become a Motorball champion central to her character development, largely because it gives them an excuse to mount one of the film's most kinetic and bombastic action set pieces. This sense-battering robots-on-wheels sequence is an impressively complex spectacle, but essentially a heavy-metal orgy of digital effects with minimal dramatic point. Imagine a stage production of Starlight Express directed by Michael Bay.

Crucially, Alita contains scant traces of the warmth, wit and punky attitude that characterized most of Cameron's early work, and which has underscored every previous Rodriguez movie to date. Indeed, besides a couple of leaden one-liners, the screenplay is strikingly low on humor. Naturally droll, wry, subtle performers like Waltz and Ali are obliged to operate in muted one-note mode. Another oddly lazy touch is the background chorus of minor characters who look like refugees from '80s music videos, with their piercings and tattoos, wild Mohawk hair and artfully ripped leather jackets. This kind of by-the-numbers cyberpunk futurism looked pretty tired 20 years ago, and feels utterly redundant today.

Cameron and Rodriguez leave some key characters and unresolved plot points dangling at the end of Alita, brazenly signaling their sequel-minded, franchise-primed intentions. Their chutzpah is admirable, but perhaps, on this occasion, a little misplaced.

Production companies: 20th Century Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment, Troublemaker Studios
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, based on the
Gunnm manga series by Yukito Kishiro
Producers: James Cameron, Jon Landau
Cinematographer: Bill Pope
Editors: Stephen E. Rivkin, Ian Silverstein
Music: Tom Holkenborg

Rated R, 122 minutes