An advanced cyborg is discovered by an inventor and revived with no memories of her mysterious past.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, and Keean Johnson
Review by Jon Kissel
If Cameron can’t direct this CGI mess because he’s mapping the ocean floor or something, Robert Rodriguez is as good a stand-in as any. Rodriguez has long moved from micro-budget Westerns set in Mexico to the candy colored graphics of your Spy Kids, your Shark Boys, your Lava Girls. He sparked the trend for green-screen overusage with Sin City. With Alita, Rodriguez does well with the visuals, such that I can’t see the seams (though I’m admittedly bad at seeing mediocre CGI), and the action works well enough. Like Cameron, it’s easy to see that this is where his interest lies, and the rest is so much fluff. Much of Alita goes by like no one put a second thought into consistent world-building, or how to make the most of its characters. For example, people or characters reveling in some sensory experience that the average viewer takes for granted work on me. That video circling the Internet where a color-blind kid is given glasses that let him see color for the first time: fantastic. Alita tasting a perfect orange segment: also great. There’s an opportunity here for some powerful sense memory filmmaking, but Rodriguez would prefer showing his protagonist kick a thug’s head off.
Characters frequently talk about how bad the world is, but on the ever-widening scale of dystopian movie environments, Iron City’s doing pretty well. Is this place a devastated landscape/trash pile or is it essentially the same agricultural paradise as the present, where oranges and chocolate seem to be as abundant as they are now? In addition to this tasty bounty, robot enhancements seem to be readily available to the average person, there’s healthy forests to explore outside city limits, and the pro sports scene looks to be a lot of fun. There’s poor people and there’s street crime, but there’s not much sense of a privation in general. So many characters lament their position and are desperate to get to Zalem, but the film does a terrible job stressing why.
In the title role, Rosa Salazar is perfectly fine, which qualifies as a high compliment in the case of this film. Entirely motion-captured, it’s her eyes that pop first. I don’t know enough about Japanese sexual mores to comment intelligently on this, but let’s just say that a sequel will probably contain an octopus. Salazar has been a low-key favorite of mine since a charming turn in single-location indie Night Owls. She’s better than the dialogue given to her, even through a mask of one’s and zero’s. As her surrogate father, Christoph Waltz is collecting a paycheck, as is a flat Jennifer Connolly in a role with an off-camera and unconvincing heel-face turn. Mahershala Ali is marginally better with a fun death scene, but the unequivocal bottom of the talent pool is Disney Channel castoff Keean Johnson as Alita’s love interest. These kinds of generic, unimpressive white boys must litter the sidewalks in Hollywood, but if that’s the case, one would think a more qualified could have been found. Johnson is saddled with a lot of exposition that would be hard for most to dress up, but he has a chemistry-less romance with Alita that I choose to blame him for and a wholly unconvincing moral awakening. What I will give him credit for is making me laugh at his death scene, in which his disembodied head and arm fall in slow motion through the clouds. Hilarious.
As empty and lifeless and ill-considered as so much of Alita is, Salazar and the action are good enough to get it to a place of tolerance. Aided by a tame amount of body horror and some charming, gratuitous dog murder, this is inoffensive enough that it could be left on to play in the background. As a harbinger of the looming Avatar sequels, Alita serves as a reminder that James Cameron cannot write to save his life, but in between the scoffs and the eye rolls, there’ll at least be some pretty images and capable action. There’s no chance I would see a theoretical sequel in theaters, but I’d leave it on HBO Now while playing Civilization VI. C-