After nearly three weeks since my press screening, I have been secretly dreading composing a review for James Cameron’s latest production, Alita: Battle Angel. Even more so than dreading it, I was truly unsure of how to approach it, since the experience has almost completely been wiped from my memory (for the better, incidentally). But after attending another press screening earlier today, that same negative, bitter taste persisted. Alita: Battle Angel has some stellar moments, intensified by the accumulative efforts from visual effects company, Weta Digital. But on the complete opposite spectrum, the film is so depressingly stale in its narrative design, weaving together a thin and poorly built structure that threatens to fall apart at any moment.
The film is based on a popular manga series by Yukito Kishiro, transporting viewers into the 26th century (reminder we’re in the 21st) where the wealthy live in a city in the sky and the poor are left on a war scorched Earth. One such terrestrially banished is Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, “The Legend of Tarzan”), a cyberphysician. Looking for spare parts in the junk yard to re-purpose in his practice, he unearths the broken remains of an aged cyborg. Finding it has a still functional brain, he affixes it to a body at his workshop and christens her Alita (a motion captured Rosa Salazar, “Maze Runner: The Death Cure”). She doesn’t remember much, but she befriends a boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson, “Heritage Falls”) who helps to fill her in on the world she now inhabits and introduces her to the sport of Motorball. Her impressive skills catches the exploitative eyes of Motorball overseer Vector (Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”) as well as Dyson’s ex-wife, Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly, “Noah”). Unluckily for them, Alita also possesses fighting skills, not seen in ages . . .
More than anything, Alita: Battle Angel plays like a YA adaptation, a genre which has long gone out of popularity, with some of its most recent additions — “Allegiant,” “The 5th Wave” and “Mortal Engines” — being financial and critical flops. The film fits the standards that the genre was infamous for, including overdoing a tired out assortment of social issues pushed to ridiculous extremes, and conforms to even more storytelling conventions, including a disastrous romance arc that is reminiscent of the atrocious efforts seen in “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.”
But while it is little more than a series of clichés, it is buried under the façade of one of the best looking films.
To that point, it’s certainly worth mentioning that Weta Digital has truly gone the extra mile with their effects, with the completely CGI character of Alita behaving and looking (anime eyes aside) like a real person, who the audience can connect to. The scenery and action sequences are overall stellar as well. The locations are vivid and imaginative, and they enhance some superb action sequences. It’s too bad director Robert Rodriguez (“Machete Kills”) seemingly lifts some shots directly from other films — some of which that were released in the past year, including the Academy-Awarded nominated “Black Panther.”
As a collective sum, when moving past its technical flairs, Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t add up to anything worthwhile. Its overbearing story weighs down on the viewer, forcing them to endure a two-hour film that feels far over five hours. It certainly has spectacle for those who value that above all else, including one of the best 3D presentations in years. Even then though, it’s hard to recommend this as anything more than just a film to watch on the airplane when sleeping is not an option and there is time to kill.