If you want to know what James Cameron has been up to since he achieved worldwide box-office dominance with Avatar 10 years ago — besides tinkering away on a bunch of Avatar sequels we still don’t have release dates for — you may want to check out Alita: Battle Angel. Cameron didn’t direct this cyperpunk epic adapted from Yukito Kishiro’s manga comics, one with a reported budget of $200 million and heavy-lifting from Peter Jackson’s FX team; he handed off that job to B-movie maestro Robert Rodriquez (Sin City). But Titanic’s King of the World produced and co-wrote the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) and his grand-to-grandiose touch is all over it. You decide if it’s a fair trade off.
The year is 2563. A female cyborg warrior has spent the past 300 years broken and lifeless in a garbage dump, a remnant of an apocalyptic war (don’t ask) that has wrecked the crowded urban landscape known as Iron City. The elite live in Zalem, a floating metropolis that symbolizes an impossible dream for the worker bees, bounty hunters and criminals below. One of the dreamers is Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor whose specialty is cyborg repair (as Terminator name checks go, that’s a bingo). It’s a talent that comes in handy when he finds the discarded half-human/half bot girl, who’s been left in pieces and suffers from a serious case of amnesia.
She can’t remember her name — so Ido calls her Alita, the name of his late daughter, and hooks up her brain and powerful, anti-matter heart to a cyberbody he’d been saving since his child was murdered. Paging Dr. Freud! Actress Rosa Salazar (Parenthood, American Horror Story) does a fine, motion-capture job playing the reconstructed Alita, except for the distractions that come from a digital makeover that gives her huge, cartoon-like peepers and the smooth, pulled-tight skin of a plastic-surgery addict. It works for the role. Sort of.
How does all this Ghost in the Shell-ifying work for the movie as a whole? That’s another question. Despite the lack of originality, the setup holds a lot of promise, and Rodriquez and Cameron keep it visually exciting, especially when Alita starts regaining her old combat-ready memories and her killer instincts begin kicking in again. Plus Waltz and Salazar add a warmth to their characters that make you eager to know more of their backstories. Instead, it’s lovey-dovey alert when our heroine meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a human boy of surpassing blandness. If a loaf of Wonderbread could write love scenes, they’d might sound like the cloying flirtations between these two teens.
Luckily, Hugo gets Alita involved with the game of Motorball, the national pastime in Iron City. It’s a brutal roller derby that can get you killed — or win you a ticket to Zalem. At first, these scenes fly off the screen thanks to the kinetic energy of the filmmaking. Then things start to drag, not just from repetition but from convoluted plotting. It seems that Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (a sinister but fashionable Jennifer Connelly) is conspiring with the villainous Vector (Mahershala Ali, working way below his considerable talents) to fix the game with cyberathletes. Why? There’s a higher power in that city in the sky that wants it so. (Right at the end, we see that the god-head is played by an Oscar-nominated actor, whose identity won’t be spoiled here).
What’s all too clear to see — and it’s a bummer — is that Alita, Battle Angel isn’t really a movie at all. Rather, it’s a fragment, a framework for a sequel, or a series of sequels, that it’s hard to imagine any audience demanding. Even those moments when the movie rouses itself to cinematic vigor are followed by padding and recycling. Cameron has been trying to get Alita’s story on screen for two decades. No wonder it feels wobbly and worked-over. Back then it might have played like gangbusters. But now, after a deluge of comic book epics and other CGI-filled sci-fi fantasies, the movie feels like it’s way past its sell-by date. Alita: Battle Angel looks ready to rock, but time has sucked the life out of the party.