This one has been a long time coming.
Back in the early 2000s, James Cameron had two pet projects he was planning to direct. The first was Alita: Battle Angel, based on Manga comic, Gunnm. The other was a little thing called Avatar. We all know what happened with the second option and (unless you’ve been living in a hole for a good while) we also know that, after much humming and hawing, Cameron has committed himself to filming four Avatar sequels. But clearly he wasn’t ready to give up on that other project. Enter Robert Rodriguez to take up the directorial reins as Cameron’s er… avatar… while he contents himself with co-writing and producing duties on Alita. What could go wrong?
Well, the word on the street is that the resulting film is a bit of a dog’s dinner and one that looks certain to lose an awful lot of money. But, if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that it’s unwise to underestimate Cameron, who has managed to confound expectations several times before. Most people predicted that Titanic would sink without a trace…
In the year 2563, the earth has been reduced to a devastated post-war shambles. Most people live in the ramshackle chaos of Iron City, while high above them, in a floating sky palace called Zalem, a mysterious ruling class look disdainfully down whilst quite literally dropping their trash on the less fortunate below them. A metaphor perhaps for the way in which the affluent West offloads it’s garbage on the poorer countries of the world? Quite probably.
Whilst searching through a rubbish dump, cyborg scientist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the head and spinal column of a young female cyborg. His scanners detect signs of life in it. So he whips it back to his laboratory, where he conveniently happens to have an artificial female body all primed and ready to go, the one he actually built for his wheelchair-bound daughter Alita, but which she never got to use.
The new version of Alita (played by a GGI augmented Rosa Salazar) wakes up with a powerful new body that works a treat but oddly, she has no memories of her previous existence. However, it isn’t long before she discovers that one thing she can do really well is fight, using an ancient martial art called Panzer Kunst… and fight she does. A lot.
Of course, given the genre, this is probably inevitable but it’s in the film’s early stretches that it is at its most accomplished. Alita is a genuinely exciting CGI creation (I hope to see Salazar in some less tweaked roles in the future) and the basic premise, with its shades of Frankenstein and even Pinocchio, is initially alluring. But why do so many action movies have such one-note lead characters? Think how refreshing it would be if Alita was good at music… or poetry… or… well, something other than kicking people repeatedly in the face. Rodriguez, by the way, somehow succeeds in giving us an ultra-violent movie that manages to hang on to its 12A certificate, mostly by virtue of lopping off artificial limbs and robotic heads rather than flesh and blood. A bit disingenuous, I think.
From this point the film is a decidedly mixed bag. We meet Ido’s ex wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), a fellow cyborg scientist who is desperately trying to earn her passage back to Zalem, mostly by buttering up the mysterious Vector (Mahershala Ali, proving that he’s not afraid to wallow in less hallowed projects than his recent Oscar-nominated films). There are some decent action sequences (the one where Alita is pursued by a murderous pack of weirdly constructed cyborg killers plays like a cross between Mad Max and The Wacky Races, but manages to generate some genuine thrills in the process). If there’s an overlying problem here it’s simply that the plot feels rather nebulous. I am never really sure why so many people are keen to kill Alita, nor quite what to make of the occasional flashbacks she encounters.
I do however like the fact that the mysterious overlord briefly glimpsed looking down on all the shennaningins from the safety of Zalem really looks like James Cameron himself – which would have been a brilliant idea. (Someone in the know assures me that it is actually Ed Norton, but I like my idea better.)
Alita isn’t the disaster that so many have predicted – but neither is it a triumph. It’s a curate’s egg of a film. Good in parts but, in others, indigestible.