Robert Rodriguez hardly ever misfires. He’s a master of genre, with hits like Sin City, Planet Terror, and Machete. He’s a frequent collaborator with Quentin Tarantino, and has a visual eye many filmmakers would kill for.
That said, his latest film, Alita: Battle Angel, just flat out sucks. The film languished in Development Hell for over a decade because producer/writer James Cameron was way too busy on Avatar and the sequels that will seemingly never happen. By the time we finally got this movie going, the end result was little more than a mish-mash of Young Adult romance tropes and CGI clusterfuck battles.
Based on the 90s manga series, “Gunnm,” the film takes place centuries into a dystopian future where after “The Fall,” an interplanetary war that wiped out most of humanity, human civilization exists in a rigid caste system, where the elites live in a floating city called Zalem, while the plebeians and commoners – as well as integrated cyborgs – live on the surface in a giant slum called Iron City. Under the scrap heaps of Zalem, a cyberneticist named Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, in his second film involving characters drawn with giant eyes) discovers the head and shoulders of a discarded cyborg with a still-functioning human brain. He takes it home and fuses it to the robotic body he had designed for his late daughter (who was disabled and incapable of walking), bringing the cyborg to life and naming her Alita, after said daughter.
Alita has no memory of anything before her activation, but she’s essentially designed to be a teenage girl (despite the fact that the actress playing her, Rosa Salazar, is 33), so Dr. Ido raises her as a replacement daughter. Think of it as Pinocchio meeting Astro Boy, except not the least bit endearing. Through conveniently timed flashes of memory during altercations, Alita remembers bits and pieces of her past, realizing that she was designed as a battle weapon during “The Fall,” which is slightly weird, because you would think that the ultimate semi-living weapon would not look like a big-eyed anorexic-looking teenager, but what do I know? Also, she’s revealed to be 300 years old, yet somehow Dr. Ido found her on top of the pile without any digging, so what gives?
Anyway, on her first day out in public, Alita meets two important people. One is Chiren, Dr. Ido’s ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly) who left after their daughter died. The other is Hugo (Keean Johnson), a young man who gathers scrap parts for Dr. Ido’s clinic (he repairs cyborgs), and to whom Alita immediately develops a lady robo-boner. He teaches her the sport of Motorball, which everyone in the community loves, and also gives Rodriguez the ability to rip off Rollerball. Hugo and his friends moonlight as a gang who captures star Motorball players and steals their best combat parts, which are then sold to Chiren, who integrates them into her team’s players, creating super violent cyborgs that could eventually win the league championship.
It’s all in service of Vector (Mahershala Ali, making a strong case to have his Oscar revoked), who manipulates Chiren, Hugo, and many others to do his bidding in return for a trip up to Zalem, and a supposedly better life. It’s a Faustian bargain so obvious that it boggles the mind how anyone goes for it. Vector is one of several villains in the film, who can basically all be figured out by just assuming anyone who wears black or is black is a bad guy.
Looking for more clues to her past, Alita joins Dr. Ido in becoming a Hunter Warrior, otherwise known as a bounty hunter, and she attempts to recruit others to help her in her cause. Most openly mock her, while the others try to kill her. The de facto leader of this mini-faction of antagonists is Zapan (Ed Skrein, aka Ajax from Deadpool), considered the deadliest bounty hunter, and who looks fake as shit because it’s only the actor’s face on a robot body whose back looks like the set of Legends of the Hidden Temple. Between all these storylines, Alita tries to form a romance with Hugo, which is tacked on and cheesy as fuck, to say nothing of the fact that as we see her artificial body, we know Alita has no vagina, so where exactly is this fling supposed to go?
The Gordian Knot of plot threads is little more than table setting for a few elaborate action set pieces. There’s some potential in the abilities and machinery that allows these fights to happen, but when it’s all a cartoon, is it really all that impressive? I say no. And just to confound everything else, the film ends on an ambiguous note with another villain reveal, so that sequels can happen. I’m not one to dole out spoilers, but it really is some bullshit when the filmmakers find it more important to set up a series than to actually end the first movie.
This flick is hot garbage from beginning to end, and it’s especially jarring considering the talent behind it. And you can see the sparks of some really good ideas itching to break through from Cameron and Rodriguez, but instead we get Transformers: Twilight Edition for no explicable reason. The CGI is second-rate, the plot makes no sense, there are tons of ripoffs of much better genre entries, and if there was meant to be anything resembling a kick-ass female protagonist, I sure as hell didn’t see it in the totally not sexist way Alita was going gaga over the mere concept of chocolate.
The one plus to this whole thing? There’s a cute dog for a few scenes.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Robert Rodriguez movie? Would Alita be a good advocate for robosexual rights? Let me know!