Remember a few years back when James Cameron was mouthing off in an ad campaign about how great Terminator: Genisys was? And then remember when he recanted later, saying he only did it as a favour to his old buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger? Anyone getting the same feeling watching big Jimmy C in the ad campaigns singing praises for Alita: Battle Angel unfortunately are bang on the money as once again Mr. Cameron spectacularly bets on the wrong horse.
In his defence, A:BA has been a massive passion project of his for well over a decade now and was, in fact, nearly something he himself was going to direct until he fatefully switched to making Avatar instead. Handing his script over to notorious anti-establishment, tex-mex, rebel Robert Rodriguez, Alita seemed to herald something special; two iconic filmmakers of substantial vision pooling their collective talents to create something genuinely incredible.
Well the only incredible thing here is how the Hell the guys who gave us Desperado and Aliens respectively managed to turn in a film so defiantly bland.
Picked out of a junk pile underneath a vast locked-off city in the sky, the robot torso of a teenage girl is salvaged and resurrected by a kindly techno-surgeon (a baffled looking Christoph Waltz). Of course, this being an anime adaptation the girl, named Alita, is actually a lethal soldier fashioned from forgotten tech from past war and loaded with plot convenient amnesia. And so off we go with her on an extremely uneven journey of discovery that feels as episodic as it does rushed, and every scene feeling like it ends 3 minutes too soon. For two masters of geek cinema, Rodriguez and Cameron show hideous storytelling skills, Rodriguez at this point hasn’t managed to churn out a truly great film since the first Sin City and Cameron has been nurturing this script for over a decade, how is this possible?
A major problem is the nature of the script in general. Randomly changing jobs like some kind of steel sinewed, techno-barbie, Alita goes from thwarting a trio of serial killers to becoming a bounty hunter to randomly finding a new supercharged robot body to becoming a sports star. It’s like the film can’t bear to keep it’s title character in one place for too long unless the viewers get more than 3 minutes to realize how silly this all is.
The world building can’t be faulted. Iron City really is a faultless fusion of Cameron’s imagination and Rodriguez’s dusty, Mexican grit and visually and despite sporting big-ass anime eyeballs so big she would surely require contact lenses the size of Oreo cookies, Alita really crosses the uncanny valley with photo-real CGI. But therein lies ANOTHER problem, even though thanks to bright, perky, likeable mocap performance, Alita is never more than a cipher for the audience and doesn’t have much weight as an actual three dimensional character. Actually, neither does anyone else except save the oddly dependable Ed Skrein as a smug media bounty hunter. Pretty much every main character are cardboard cutouts, or in the case of her boyfriend (does that make him robo-sexual?) out and out bland.
However, when the talents of the filmmakers actually shines through things lighten somewhat. A cybernetic bar fight holds up favourably to ones Rodriguez has done before in Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn and the huge, brutal, chaotic sporting event called Motor Ball is very, very Cameron. But these are mere blips in a fairly ordinary movie, that only succeeds as one of the better western anime adaptations because the bar is set so incredibly low. “Arguably better than Ghost In The Shell” may not be the tagline the marketers would choose for the ad campaign, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
So if you really want a robot loaded merging of two major filmmaking talents, stick to Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s A.I. because Alita unfortunately lacks the correct parts…