Decay, rebirth or both? Alita has a healthy audience, a certain youthful innocence and the contradictory energy of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.
This particular future has been a long time coming; you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve been here before. Based on the 90s manga series and anime, it was first announced as James Cameron’s next project back in 2003. Then when the Avatar sequels made it clear Cameron wouldn’t be working on anything else for a very long time, he passed it along to director Robert Rodriguez, who shares his interest in tough female leads and special effects without Cameron’s ability to ground them in plausible… well, much of anything plausible if you remember the Machete movies.
Which is the biggest problem this entertaining but flawed film has: Cameron and Rodriguez simply aren’t a great fit. For a while at least it’s hardly noticeable as the manga’s well-worn story ticks along, but the more this future world develops, the more the cracks begin to show. It’s 500-odd years from now and a devastating war has laid waste to most of the planet. Only one of the many floating cities that once dotted the Earth survives: Zalem, with the junkyard town of Iron City living off its waste underneath. While going through that trash, Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of a cyborg (human brain, robot body, big eyes that you don’t even notice after the second scene) that he takes home and rebuilds.
From there it’s pretty much a roller-coaster ride (almost literally at one stage). The cyborg (played in motion capture by Rosa Salazar) – now named Alita after Dr Ido’s dead daughter - is given one body then later upgrades it to a more deadly model, which is handy as she works both as a freelance punching vigilante and a roller-skating death sport contestant because it turns out she literally gets off on violence and it's the only way she can remember anything of her past.
She also gets a teen crush boyfriend (Keean Johnson) who’s extremely bland, Dr Ido turns out to have a side hustle smashing the cyborgs he fixes during his day job, there’s a sinister figure behind it all who communicates by possessing people and Alita even has a link to the war that trashed the planet. Plus there’s a whole lot of action; even at two hours, this is not a film that encourages toilet breaks.
Rodriguez brings to Alita his usual approach to special effects: make them a little cartoony, a bit over the top, and just plausible enough to keep the story moving. Which, to be fair, seems a reasonable approach for a movie built around unlikely cyborgs pummelling each other. But Cameron co-wrote the script, and his approach to storytelling is always deadly earnest – his movies work because there isn’t an ounce of irony in them, and that extends to his approach to special effects. His stories might be set in fantastical worlds, but they’re always totally believable and without that level of reality in the visuals, the emotional core here simply doesn’t work.
Outside of the (plentiful) action sequences, too often the big moments fizzle. Dr Ido’s fatherly love is barely sketched in; at one stage Alita literally offers her boyfriend her (robot) heart and it almost feels played for laughs. And without that heart, many of the film’s more generic elements feel stale or disjointed. Alita’s second body is anime sexy; Iron City is by-the-numbers dystopia; the death sport is based around roller-blading. All of these things could work, but the conviction that this is a story that really needs to be told isn’t there.
And yet, Salazar’s performance goes a long way towards balancing that out. She gives Alita just the right level of innocence and delight in everything going on around her to make the action scenes seem fresh. She’s the only character in the film who really seems to care about what’s going on, and because she cares she makes it possible – at least sometimes – for the audience to care too.
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