Somewhere between Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell and Christian Rivers’ Mortal Engines falls Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel. Like the former, this is Hollywood mangled manga, being opted from hit Japanese franchise Gunnm. Like the later, the film comes from a producer known for visual spectacle and overlong screenplays: James Cameron, in this case. If Alita does little to disprove the theory that western cinema can do no justice to East Asian anime, it certainly offers enough style, flair and action to disguise the troubling lack of substance.
Truth be told, there’s not actually all that much inherently wrong with Alita: Battle Angel. Rosa Salazar is strong as the titular cyborg, bringing impressive physicality to a motion capture role that ought to be anything but, and Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner’s production design dazzles at every turn. Even the Dua Lipa closing credits tune is a banger. Where the film falters – and where Cameron’s Avatar faltered before it – is in the storytelling itself, which lacks energy or, indeed, originality. Nothing new is brought to the table here and yet endless reels of exposition must still be ploughed through for the plot to make sense. The result is disengagement. Alita is fun, perfectly watchable and occasionally entertaining but never compelling.
Also like Mortal Engines, Rodriguez’s film is set in our dystopian cyberpunk future. Following war with Mars, a catastrophe known as ‘the fall’ has left Earth barren and only vaguely human, with the majority updated with mechanical limbs. The dregs of society have congealed around the so-called Iron City, a scrapyard metropolis lying in the shadow of the floating home of the world’s elites: Zalem. The have-nots’ only joy derives from viciously lucrative games of motorball. Regarding Zalem, think Elysium; with motorball, it’s essentially Rollerball but with an ‘m’. Add to the mix a law enforcement regime in which competitive cyborgs – Hunter Warriors – have replaced official policing and Cameron has himself a world built. Courtesy of Yukio Kishiro, of course.
Within this melange works Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a renowned scientist with a desperately sad absence in his heart. Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) appears to have recovered better but only through icing over. Just watch as she splats that poor beetle without a second thought. When looting his way through the discharge of Zalem’s waste disposal tubes, Ido discovers a head and shoulders, those of a cyborg splintered from its body. Who is she? What is she? These a mysteries that only grow when Ido reassembles the battered cyborg – who has no memory of her past – with the high-capacity robotic body he had once produced for another. Naming her Alita, Ido’s dreams of guardianship are quickly crushed as this new surrogate daughter is drawn to conflict and to face up to a past that must dictate her future. It’s expansive stuff and evidently this was envisioned as the first in a franchise that will likely never come, based on the lukewarm critical and financial global response the film has been met by.
Well-choreographed fight scenes pepper the story with increasing prominence as the film enters its later act and prove enough to occupy the mind, while the eye revels in marvellous visual effects. If her bug-like eyes dance in the uncanny valley, Alita remains a brilliantly rendered computer creation and is smartly matched with a selection of neat cyborg designs. In the face of a teenage-accessible rating, Cameron pushes classification boundaries to good effect, without ever crossing into excess. If Motorball never really excites and Keean Johnson’s love interest Hugo is too wet to woo, Salazar holds the whole thing together nicely. Hers is no remarkable performance – with this material, such is not on the cards – but likability and morality take her character far. Waltz is fine and Mahershala Ali is good as subsidiary villain Vector.
If Alita does somehow earn a sequel, this wouldn’t be an entirely unwelcome prospect. Part one is sturdy and benefits from excellent visuals and a game cast. It’s not memorable by any stretch of the imagination but it does stretch the imagination enough to stave off boredom.