Barely 15 minutes into Robert Rodriguez’ new manga-inspired sci-fi romp you may find yourself wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. With a script stuffed to the gills with middle-school-level dialogue and performances that make even the most ham-fisted actor look refined, Alita: Battle Angel is something only comic book-loving tweens might find entertaining. And even with its whiz-bang special effects (amplified, if you pony up the cash for a pair of 3D specs), Alita doesn’t have nearly enough of—well, anything to emerge as the game-changing, franchise-launching juggernaut Twentieth Century Fox hopes it is.
Co-produced and co-written by Avatar creator James Cameron, Alita is based on the 1990 Japanese manga series Gunnm and has been stuck in various stages of development for almost 20 years; Cameron, in fact, finished the first script way back in 2009. Now it’s finally here, and the immediate thought right out of the gate is how, in all that time, no one could come up with a better movie—particularly with a budget reportedly in the $200 million range.
The year is 2563, approximately 300 years after “The Fall”, which was an unspecified apocalyptic event that left the world looking like the Earth did at the beginning of Pixar’s Wall-E. Cybersurgeon Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is rummaging through the trash heaps looking for spare parts when he trips on the upper half of a cyborg girl. He takes her back to the lab and—a few staples here, a few screws there—he has made Alita (Rosa Salazar).
Simple enough beginning, sure—but it doesn’t take long for the movie to careen off the rails. It would take the better part of a week to explain where the plot goes from there, but suffice to say that some bad guys want Alita dead since she’s not exactly what Ido made her to be. Leading the bad guys is Mahershala Ali, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2016’s Moonlight just a few weeks after filming wrapped on Alita… and it’s a good thing, too. Had anyone seen the clunky, mustache-twirling performance he gives here beforehand, it’s possible he would have never worked in Hollywood again. Now, though, it can just be written off as a youthful indiscretion.
Alita’s biggest problems, though, are that it seems like it’s ripping off the worst parts of many sci-movie movies that have come before it (including Blade Runner, Total Recall, District 9, and, yes, even Wall-E), and that the last frames make it clear that the only reason we’re here is to set up a sequel; there’s no sense of resolution or conclusion at all. Rodriguez, Cameron, and the gang offer nothing satisfying for you to look back on as you walk out of the theater. The only thing that is satisfying is that you do, in fact, get to walk out of the theater and put all of this behind you.