Alita: Battle Angel has traversed a long, winding, uphill road to reach the big screen. The project spent years languishing in Development Hell under the supervision of James Cameron, who’s pretty much fallen out of favor in the industry for his controversial decision to devote all of his time and resources to crafting an Avatar cinematic universe. When the first trailer finally dropped, the CG-animated title character’s design was widely mocked for its enlarged eyes and exaggerated facial features. Most damningly, the studio chose to release it in the “dumping month” of February, which is usually reserved for box office bombs and critical flops. Overall, the atmosphere surrounding the film was bleak, as though its failure was inevitable and preordained.
To be fair, the finished product is a rather mixed bag. The screenplay is partially credited to Cameron, and like a lot of his recent work, it’s ambitious… but overstuffed. Most movies follow a basic three-act structure; Alita, to put it plainly, does not. Indeed, it’s essentially an entire trilogy crammed into a hair over two hours: our heroine, a super-advanced “full replacement” cyborg (basically, a human brain inside of a robotic shell), battles organ harvesters, cutthroat bounty hunters, and corrupt corporate overlords, all the while struggling to reassemble her shattered memories and discover her place in the unfamiliar world into which she has awakened—and somehow, she even finds time to participate in a brutal bloodsport!
While all of these ideas are undeniably cool, they result in an extremely busy narrative. Consequently, both the romantic subplot and the protagonist’s relationship with her mechanic/surrogate father (played by Christoph Waltz, whose credible, compassionate performance elevates the thin material) remain woefully underdeveloped as the story rushes to hit its obligatory badass, triumphant beats, making it difficult to get invested in the action. Cameron’s trademark lack of subtlety certainly doesn’t help matters: at various points, Alita uses blood as makeshift warpaint, slices a teardrop in half with a sword, and literally offers her love interest her beating metallic heart. Such grandiose, over-the-top moments are obviously intended to inspire the audience to cheer, but without a proper emotional framework, they end up feeling hollow and unearned.
Fortunately, the visuals are sumptuous enough to compensate for the script’s shortcomings. I wouldn’t quite call this a “return to form” for director Robert Rodriguez, since his distinctive voice and style are largely absent, but it’s definitely a huge step up from the creative misfire that was Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (which was so disappointing that it physically hurt my soul). That said, his pulp fiction influences are on full display; he clearly understands that aesthetics are just as integral to the cyberpunk sub-genre as its dystopian themes (if not more so), crafting a beautifully rotten post-post-apocalyptic future that’s filled to the brim with rust, scrap, neon lights, urban decay, and floating mega-cities. It’s a richly-detailed yet believably lived-in setting that I wouldn’t mind visiting again. Luckily, the ending teases further adventures—and I genuinely hope that Alita: Battle Angel finds enough financial success to deliver on that promise, because a series just might fulfill the potential I glimpsed in this flawed but fun first installment.