Even second-rate James Cameron movies are better than nothing. Alita: Battle Angel finally makes it to the big screen after years of gestation, albeit under the direction of the hit-or-miss Robert Rodriguez. But Cameron, who co-wrote and produced the movie, has his fingerprints all over the place—from the impressive world building to the eye-opening visual effects.
Based on a manga series I’ve never read because I’ve never read manga in my life, Alita: Battle Angel has a lot of things going for it. Other than the opening shot, the visual effects are top notch, from the massive and highly detailed dystopian world on display to the title character’s fluid facial features, which proved to be much less distracting than the trailers would lead you to believe.
The action, though largely unremarkable in terms of scale or originality, is well done, the highlights being a [rather pointless] bar fight scene and a death match roller skating tournament that is a lot cooler to watch than these words can describe.
And the story, when you strip it down to the core, is pretty compelling—a cyborg girl with badass fighting skills is rebuilt but has no memory of her past, but clearly has the chops to be a threat to the eye in the sky who sees all and rules all. Alita: Battle Angel delivers a world you want to see more of and tells a story you want to see to the end (sadly, and disappointingly, one if its fatal flaws is that the movie is incomplete, the ending no more than a cliffhanger for a sequel that will never happen.
Because, you know, this second-rate James Cameron movie, which cost $200 million to produce, is probably going to lose a ton of money.
So what makes it second rate?
Co-written by Cameron, who is great at visualizing stories but not necessarily writing them, Rodriguez, and Laeta Kalogridis—whose last credit was the absolutely terrible Terminator Genisys—Alita: Battle Angel suffers from pretty poor dialogue, lame characters, and massive plot holes and logic jumps that are so baffling you’ll find yourself glancing at the person sitting next to you just to see if they are just as confused (the answer is yes).
The title character, played by Rosa Salazer, is quite good—except for when she is out of the blue trying to rally a bunch of bounty hunters and mercenaries to her cause via a rousing speech that comes out of nowhere, or when she goes full on crazy girlfriend and literally offers her heart—a power source that her “father” (enjoyably played by Christoph Waltz) told her was priceless—to her loser of a boyfriend.
But the movie largely wastes Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, both of whom seem woefully out of place (never mind Idara Victor, who was probably excited to be cast in a film like this only to literally spend the entire movie just standing next to Christoph Waltz and saying at most two words). And then there is Keean Johnson, whose clean-cut “good boy” character just doesn’t fit at all in the story—in part because Johnson just isn’t very good in the role. The way the movie deals with his character is also pretty confounding, and leads to one of the sillier moments of the story.
But it’s the logic gaps that keep Alita: Battle Angel from being a top tier sci-fi action movie. It feels as though 30 minutes were cut from the film, most notably the pivotal moments when Alita decides that the city’s nebulous ruler is her sworn enemy and that she thinks she can win people to her cause. The aforementioned rousing speech scene really makes no sense as you spend the whole time asking, “How did we get here?”
The movie’s forward momentum is choppy, demanding you repeatedly overlook major plot holes.
Had Alita: Battle Angel tightened up certain storylines, developed others, and cut some of the cheesy romantic moments that just don’t work, it would have been a solid first film in a potential series. But it needed a bit more action, a lot less stupidity, and an ending that doesn’t have the hubris to assume a sequel is going to happen.
Still, Alita: Battle Angel has a lot of things going for it. Despite its flaws, it’s consistently entertaining, its world and underlying plot alluring to say the least. It’s worth seeing, if only because this is a James Cameron movie. Sort of.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.