Alita: Battle Angel opens with Christoph Waltz looking for relics amid the rubble of a ruined Earth civilization, perhaps hoping to find one of the two Oscars he somehow won during the pre-apocalypse.
In fact, Waltz is scrounging for spare parts, an apt mission for this messy mash-up that invokes everything from Robocop to The Wizard of Oz to Ovid, and that has the earmarks of too many cooks — written by James Cameron (Terminator), directed Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), based on a series of manga books and exhibiting no distinctive vision of its own.
It’s set 500 years hence, in a place called Iron City, where lower-caste humans in a supposed post-apocalyptic setting scratch out a living in the teeming streets, some hoping to reach the lofty and privileged heights of Zalem, a city suspended above the Earth, ruled over by an omniscient, omnipotent tech lord (I wish I could report that he is not a white-clad, white-hared albino type, but the movie is almost fanatically unoriginal).
Waltz plays Dr. Ido, a physician and robot repairman uniquely well positioned to treat humans and the human-machine hybrids now commonplace in Iron City. Some folks have cybernetic limbs, some are wholly robotic except for their human brains.
Rubble-rousing Ido finds the head and thorax of a still-living cyborg he names Alita (a motion-captured Rosa Salazar), possessed of a human brain and bionic heart. He finishes her with a new robotic frame and off she goes into the world, her big, innocent Keane painting eyes trying to make sense of her surroundings — a steampunk blending of world cultures that looks less like a scary post-apocalypse than it does Brooklyn (there’s even a saloon with phony, inked-up tough guys).
We’re told citizens are obsessed with leaving Iron City, but we’re never told why. It’s a nice, funky, ungentrified place with (as it turns out) a perfectly lovely wilderness park within walking distance. Anyway, Alita spots a blandly cute guy (Keean Johnson) who acts as her guide, and who reports that if you wish to reach the floating city, the only way to do it is by winning the brutal Motorball competition (Rollerball, to older viewers).
Other plot lines flare up and fizzle out. Someone is killing young women and stealing their body parts, and it has to do with a roving band of cyborgs affiliated in some way with a sinister Matrix-y dude named Vector (Mahershala Ali), whose girlfriend Chira (Jennifer Connelly) happens to be Ido’s ex-wife. All these elements converge, ultimately on Alita, whose recovered memories speak to Earth’s fitful past and its contentious future.
It’s a story with too many influences, no cohesion, no apparent narrative purpose.
Cameron wrote the script, and he plays around with favorite themes, like the way technology both threatens and empowers women. Rodriguez boils all that down to fanboy shorthand: Robot Chicks Kick Ass. If you’re looking for the Philip K. Dick man-machine lyricism of the Blade Runner movies, you’re out of luck.
The effects are expensive-looking, but the acting is uninspired throughout. Ali is probably hoping Oscar votes are cast before this is released (a la Eddie Redmayne and Jupiter Ascending).
And I’m not sure I see the emotional advantage of taking an actress like Salazar — the only good thing about the Maze Runner movies, and turning her into a cartoon, even a $200 million cartoon.
Alita: Battle Angel
Directed by Robert Rodriguez. With Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Christoph Waltz. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 mins.
Parents guide: PG-13 (violence)