starring Rosa Salazar, Mahershala Ali, Eiza González, Christoph Waltz
screenplay by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the manga series "Gunnm" by Yukito Kishiro
directed by Robert Rodriguez
by Walter Chaw There's one genuinely good thing about Alita: Battle Angel and it has to do with a cameo by Jeff Fahey as a guy who really likes dogs. It's good because it's good to like dogs, but it also reminds of Fahey's villain from Silverado, who has a pretty great line about a dog; and it's good to be reminded of Silverado. In other words, the one genuinely good thing about Alita is there's something in it that, on purpose, reminds me of a good movie. The rest of it is noisy juvenilia taking place in the Sharkboy and Lavagirl universe--a YA disaster featuring the usual mysterious girl with the secret past who turns out to be a super-soldier and yadda yadda yadda. Jesus, does it break no new ground. Scrapper-cum-cyborg-engineer-slash-bounty-hunter Ido (Christoph Waltz, desperately hoping QT picks up the phone again) discovers the "core" of Alita (voiced and mo-capped by Rosa Salazar), basically her Victorian locket-silhouette parts, in the junkyard of a floating city housing the elites of this world ("300 YEARS AFTER THE FALL") and immediately grafts it to his dead daughter's unused robot body, because in addition to the movie being structurally unambitious and curiously sexist, it's also defiantly ableist. "I made her fast little legs," Ido says, mournfully, and then we get a flashback to the dead little girl being punched out of her wheelchair by a cyborg Ido created to compete in a future-game called "Rollerball"--I mean, "Murderskates." I don't know. Who cares. It's on roller skates and cyborgs do it. Oh, and they kill a dog.
I like (I don't) the moment where Alita gets the chance to sort of create her own body and the otherwise-useless friend of/assistant to to Ido, Nurse Gerhad (Idaro Victor), briefly seen wearing a basketball jersey for some reason (you tell me), makes a comment to the effect of Alita being older than Ido thought she was/wanted her to be. Creepy? It is. Just like when Hugo leers at her new bod approvingly after a member of his gang explains his dislike of Alita thusly: "I was never into hardbodies." Wait...is that 26th-century street-trash slang for a robot? Kids these days. When I was their age, "hardbodies" was a softcore-porn series you rented before you were old enough to rent the stuff in the room with a curtain. It's all made creepier because this character, Alita, even though she's a super-killer Jason Bourne thing, is essentially made out to be a child. Yes, this dude is not sexually interested in this child because of her hard body. Gross. Then this other dude is sexually interested in this child and notices when she's "filled out." Not better. I'm also curious as to why not being able to remember who you are also makes you forget what oranges and chocolate taste like, but I guess I've never experienced the interplanetary trauma of a cyborg. Newly pubertized, Alita asks Hugo if Hugo could love her even though she isn't, y'know, entirely human, and Hugo says, because apparently this thing was ghostwritten by Francine Pascal, that Alita is the most human human he's ever human'd. Then they kiss. I wonder if it's like when you chew aluminum foil, because that would be hot. We get to see inside Alita's chest cavity a couple of times, making me wonder where the oranges and the chocolate went. A.I. just keeps looking better and better, don't it?
Gerhad spends the rest of her time providing mildly-disapproving reaction shots, or homey "that's all right, honey" reaction shots. Why not cast the charming Idaro Victor as Ido? It seems radical until you consider that in the original manga, Alita is named after a cat, not after a dead daughter in a wheelchair who's too crippled to get out of the way. If you're making bad decisions in adaptation, go ahead and balance them out with some good ones. And wait a minute, where's all the hue-and-cry about whitewashing? Are we done with that? Or is it not whitewashing if the Asian character is now Latinx? Anyway, for what it's worth, that conversation makes more sense here than it did with Ghost in the Shell, but if you ain't bringing it up, neither am I.
The standard defense for big-budget crap like Alita is that it's expensive-looking most of the time. Many will then go on to talk about the source material and the creators and finally how people who don't like it should loosen up and learn to enjoy things that are terrible. Its destiny is future thinkpieces saying it wasn't as bad as we said at the time except it's exactly that bad. I thought for a while that the film is written for twelve-year-olds and then I thought of my son, who is twelve, who would think this was useless garbage and ask for palate-cleansing fifth and sixth screenings of The Good, the Bad, the Weird and Blade of the Immortal. Let me give you one example that is the quintessence of Alita: Battle Angel. Alita registers to be a "Hunter/Killer"--a reference to Cameron's own Terminator, of course, but also the film's term for "bounty hunter." She then makes a big speech in a cyborg bar to unite her fellow bounty hunters in a fight against an evil cyborg guy (Jackie Earle Haley) or some happy horseshit. There's a rumble, naturally, during which Rodriguez takes pains to show the only other female bounty hunter maybe taking Alita's side. It's not clear. Later, that same bounty hunter is in a fixed Bladermotor deathmatch, but Alita doesn't recognize her, nor the other bounty hunters who...wait, no, that's a different example. The one example is when Hugo turns up on a wanted poster, framed for the halving of his black friend by the soccer-hooligan bounty hunter (Ed Skrein) who thinks he's Toshiro Mifune. Alita demands to know if it's true that Hugo is a murderer, and Hugo confesses to collecting cyborg parts to sell. This is what a screenplay sounds like when no humans were involved in the writing of it. Was that it? Maybe the one example is actually when Alita takes the heart out of her chest and offers it to Hugo to sell so they can live happily ever after together. Never mind. Did you know the manga has a location called "Radio KAOS," which is a direct callback to the Roger Waters solo album featuring a robot-voiced character who counts down the apocalypse? That's really cool. It's not in the movie. Maybe the sequel/s.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that Alita is a waste of time and resources in the pursuit of yours. It realizes it has to be more inclusive and so it includes token characters. Consider that when Vector, a distinguished black man played by the black actor people currently most enjoy describing as distinguished, speaks, at least 80% of his lines are spoken through him by his mysterious handler Nova (I don't think I'm supposed to tell you who plays Nova, but it's stupid). It's a process that leaves Vector nauseated and exhausted. Also, you know when he's possessed because his eyes, wait for it, turn blue. He hates it. As would any black man not Sheriff David Clarke resent a powerful, despotic white man deciding to use him as a ventriloquist dummy. This would have been a thing in a better film, but this is Alita. Later, Vector's described by Alita with pity and disgust as a slave to the very, very Aryan Nova (which means "don't go," right?). Then she murders him anyway. That's right. To get at Nova. One less slave, Nova--take that!
The one real, intentional laugh the film got at my screening was a result of Nova looking down at his dying slave's mortal wound and saying, "Well, that looks fatal!" Haw-haw! Let's think about this for a while. Sshhh... Let it marinate. The tough woman villain, Chiren? Yeah, she gives a speech about how she forgot she was a mother but now she's remembered, and she's rewarded for her strength and empathy by being turned into spare parts for the elite's organ-harvesting scheme. Awesome. Alita realizes the real money is in tentpoles anchored by spunky Katnisses--at least it was a decade ago--and thus creates a creepy, Disney-eyed naïf getting hit on by men who would be surprised, Under the Skin-like, when it came time for intimacy. And the filmmakers, not content with the sloppy plotting, the schizoid pacing, the instantly-dated special effects, the often-hilariously-undeliverable dialogue, or the just-can't-help-it perviness (and did I mention the pair of explicit and clumsy defenses of the Second Amendment? Yeah, that's a thing), end on this gigantic, all-chips-on-the-table, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins cliffhanger promising a whole franchise of these ugly, expensive disasters. That's right, Alita is the Solarbabies sequel no one wanted, and it's threatening to keep on reproducing if you let it.