You pretty much know what you are getting into when a movie is called Alita: Battle Angel and it is directed, written and executive produced by some of the world’s most successful professional nerds. So there were no surprises with this film, which is a $200 million passion project that pays homage to computer graphics, Japanese manga, and nerd-ass shit.
In a film like this, or with any kind of sci-fi really, you are primarily looking for two things: nifty world-building and wacky but interesting ideas. When you have a budget the size of this film, beautiful eye-popping visual images should also be part of the package. Sci-fi relies on propulsive, often nonsensical, plotting to bring you into its weird world and make you want to stay there. If the characters are any good or even the least bit interesting, that is a bonus. Other than looking kind of cool, Alita hits almost none of these, and in fact seems to be actively working to do some very badly.
This film looks pretty neat. It’s got cool character designs, and a shit load of cyborgs. It’s got a floating city. It’s got a fully CG protagonist. But other than that, there is not much to recommend about this movie. It is a decades-long passion project of James Cameron. Somehow, Jon Landau and Robert Rodriguez also became involved and the three of them set about adapting a popular, long-running Japanese manga into a 2-hour feature film. Obviously, any time you try to transmogrify source material that is so different in scale and scope and in what it can do, you need to make hard but clever decisions. And it just doesn’t seem like Cameron (who is co-credited as the screenwriter and apparently initially turned in a 600 page draft or something) made the right ones.
The acting is bad. It is terrible, in most cases, although it’s telling that Rosa Salazar, whose performance is translated entirely though motion capture, is good. These guys obviously can do CGI well. But they don’t understand human beings I guess. There is a love story in this film which is very very bad and doesn’t go anywhere. Why did they include it? Because it’s in the source material. However, it could have been deleted entirely, along with the waste of pixels that is the character Hugo, and it could have saved the movie $30 million on its production budget and saved the audience from wasting their time on a character arc and a character that serve no purpose and no one is going to like. It’s the kind of acting and character that is so bad, it’s makes you a little bit disgusted and insulted.
Here is the big, big hill to climb with a film that is so technically challenging. Because so much of the production will ultimately be spent on long and expensive design and animation and rendering, there is very little room for error when you script it all out in the beginning. You can’t go back and easily do re-shoots and pick-ups, and there’s no room for improvising or improving a scene on the spot in response to how the actors are feeling the material. Everything basically needs to proceed along a continuum, so the script needs to be airtight from the get-go.
This is really the genius of Pixar. Those movies are technically and visually delightful. But they also put a lot of effort and talent into the story in the front-end, so once it hits the animation stage they just breathe life into something that already pops (it’s no coincidence that a lot of Pixar’s marquee talent made their bones working on the Simpsons, a show that intrinsically understood the importance of the process from end-to-end). James Cameron, and this has been obvious for a long time, is really only interested in the back-end, the razzle-dazzle, the 3-D effects, and what technology can do. He doesn’t put the effort into the bones of the thing, and it shows in the finished product.
Alita: Battle Angel is basically, from start to finish, an unfiltered torrent of exposition. Now, in a film like this with a complex world and back-story, exposition is impossible to get around. But there are ways, if you put enough thought into it, to handle it elegantly, delicately, so it flows rather than bashes you over the head constantly. When it is handled as clunkily as it is in this movie, it just smacks of laziness, of transcription. It also reduces the characters from, you know, being characters into being exposition spouting machines and that is a really shitty thing to watch. The other unforgivable thing the film does is spend the entire 2-hour run time setting us up for a sequel. This is a world with a floating city hovering in the sky, and we never get to see it or explore it or know much of anything about it. Why? Because they are saving that for the sequel (which will never happen, because this movie is gonna struggle big-time to make its budget back).
That is really just the worse kind of filmmaking there is. It’s so clinical, so opportunistic, and so self-assured that what they are making now is good enough it will demand a second act. Well, in order for that kind of hubris to be justified, the first act needs to be bang-on and, unfortunately, Alita: Battle Angel is total shit that sometimes, pretty much by accident, becomes slightly less shitty. You would think that Hollywood might get keyed into the fact that hanging your hat on super expensive, sophisticated effects is nothing without good plotting and interesting ideas (this movie, despite being about cyborgs, is totally uninterested in any kind of meaningful exploration of what that means to society). The world-building is not even good, because they only built 1/3 of it, saving the other 2/3 for sequels that will never hit. Blasphemy. Then again, this is James Cameron so who the fuck is gonna tell him no.