Despite the promising source material and the impressive resumes of the principals involved, “Alita: Battle Angel” feels like it could be the first giganto-flop of 2019, from the sometimes creepy imagery to the convoluted mess of a plot to the waste of an A-list cast.
This is the long-awaited, oft-delayed, big-budget adaptation of the 1990s Japanese manga graphic novel series “Gunnm,” by Yukito Kishiro. Produced by James Cameron, directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-starring Academy Award winners Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well. Just about everything. Including the white-washing of certain key characters.
Granted, we get some eye-popping 3-D visuals and a number of ultra-cool, video-game-type action sequences, but like the title character, “Alita: Battle Angel” is an amalgam without a unique identity of its own. It’s as if we’re watching a mashup of the “Terminator” movies, with a sprinkling of “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall,” a little bit of “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a dash of “Rollerball,” topped off with some “Ghost in the Shell” and “Robocop” and “Frankenstein” and even a bit of “The Truman Show” to complete the recipe.
We’ve seen this movie before. Many times.
“Alita: Battle Angel” takes place in the obligatory dystopian future, in this case the 26th century, long after a cataclysmic world war.
Rooting around in the junk pile of Iron City, the cyber-physician Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) comes across the head and upper torso of an advanced cyborg, and he brings that being back to life by attaching her to a cyborg body he’s kept stashed in his lab.
That body formerly belonged to Dr. Ido’s now-dead daughter. After Dr. Ido attaches the new girl’s head to his daughter’s body, he names the girl “Alita” — after his daughter.
Issues much, Dr. Ido?
So our freshly rebuilt heroine Alita (Rosa Salazar) is a young, free-spirited teenage girl with oversized eyes who can’t remember her past but seems to have next-level fighting skills. OK then.
Even before Alita regains her memories, she’s whip-smart and savvy — and yet she’s as naïve and lovestruck as Sandy in “Grease” when she’s around the boy-band cute but bland and transparent Hugo (Keean Johnson). Alita’s blind devotion to this narcissistic idiot is one of the many inconsistencies in the screenplay.
Jennifer Connelly is saddled with the role of Ido’s ex-wife, Cherin, a humorless vixen who abandoned her husband after their daughter died and is now with Vector (Ali), who controls everything that happens in Iron City — or should we say, is controlled by the guy who REALLY controls everything that happens in Iron City. The deeper we get into the story, the more ridiculous these characters become.
Just about everyone in Iron City dreams of one day ascending (literally) to the wealthy and supposedly utopian sky city of Zalem, which hovers above Iron City, connected by enormous, pneumatic-tube-type devices. The impoverished residents of Iron City are essentially indentured servants, with the fruits of their labors transported to Zalem, while everyone down below is left to fight for scraps.
So: How does one get the golden ticket to Zalem? Glad you asked! One does so by becoming a champion at Motorball, which is a little bit like Quidditch meets Rollerball meets NASCAR.
Cue the Motorball games!
In addition to the Motorball sequences, we get lots and lots and LOTS of fights pitting various “hunter-warriors” against one another, not to mention action-packed duels to the death between hunter-warriors and cyborg assassins.
Basically, we’re talking about a lot of human heads doing a lot of insulting and quipping and grunting and groaning while atop all manner of fighting cyborg bodies. At times the battles are slick and zippy and popping with 3-D excitement; at other times, they’re just kinda goofy, especially when heads are separated from bodies and the heads keep talking trash as if they’re in a Monty Python sketch.
Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all this, Alita regains her memories and finds an advanced “Berserker” body underwater, which eventually leads to daddy figure Dr. Ido replacing his dead daughter’s body with the new Berserker body (completed with bigger breasts, although there really doesn’t seem to be any functional reason for a cyborg body to have bigger breasts), which suits Alita even better because it turns out Alita is a master in the lost martial art known as Panzer Kurst, so how about that!
All the cutting-edge pyrotechnics in the universe can’t overcome the uneven (and ultimately unsatisfying) screenplay. At times “Alita” delves into big-picture issues about what it means to be human; on other occasions it’s as if Dr. Ido and Alita are in a 20th century sitcom, with the exasperated “dad” asking his daughter, “Where have you been?” when she stays out after dark, and fretting about this new boy in her life. And the stuff with Ali’s Vector and Connelly’s Chiren feels like it’s lifted out of a B-movie about the mob.
When we meet Alita, she’s in that junk pile. Throughout the movie, we know how she must have felt.
‘Alita: Battle Angel’
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the manga series “Gunnm” by Yukito Kishiro. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language). Running time: 142 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.