Alita: Battle Angel​'s cutting-edge effects can't save its bland story

Review: Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron team up for a lacklustre blockbuster whose story can't match its glossy looks.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporatio

With two powerhouse directors involved, Alita: Battle Angel should be a heavenly sci-fi blockbuster. Instead, it's a bland meander, an unengaging story that all the high-tech digital effects in the world can't save. 

Alita is an angelic cyborg who's tumbled from a heavenly floating city in Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron's adaptation of the '90s manga and anime. Little more than a head and a pair of oversized doe eyes, Alita is lucky enough to be found by a cybernetics expert who pops her neatly onto a new robotic body. She quickly attracts the attention of various villains in a teeming futuristic metropolis, but her luck holds out in a story that struggles to test or challenge our cybernetic star.

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Rosa Salazar is doe-eyed cyborg Alita.  

Twentieth Century Fox

James Cameron wrote the script with Altered Carbon showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, then Rodriguez stepped in to direct so Cameron could focus on the four Avatar sequels currently in the pipeline. Alita feels like something of a placeholder for the long-delayed Avatar follow-ups, showcasing cutting-edge visual effects and 3D technology from Cameron's company Lightstorm. But on this evidence, we may not need more Avatar after all.

Alita: Battle Angel, in cinemas now, is certainly glossy to look at, filled with gravity-defying fights and punky cyborgs stretching the limits of the human body. Yet the world lacks the visual identity of dystopias like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element or even 2017's disappointing Ghost in the Shell. Even the similarly themed Elysium does a better job of conjuring a trash-heap of cybernetic haves and have-nots.

Watch this: Alita: Battle Angel's Christoph Waltz reveals why acting technique didn't matter

The digitally captured Alita, played by Rosa Salazar as a wide-eyed ingenue with an amusing taste for kicking people's limbs off, is a charming guide to this cybernetics-obsessed future. But her story doesn't hang together. One minute she wants to be a bounty hunter, the next she wants to be a rollerball-style future-sport champion. The storylines are simultaneously too intertwined and frustratingly disjointed.

James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez
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James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez

James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on the set of Alita: Battle Angel.

20th Century Fox

And of course, of course, half the story is setup for a sequel.  

Where we'd like to see Alita tested and challenged to learn about herself and the strange world she wakes up in, everything is endlessly explained to her instead. Most of the exposition falls to Christoph Waltz as Ido, the cybernetic expert who finds and rebuilds Alita. 

The relationship between jaded father-figure and cyborg surrogate daughter is easily the best thing in the movie. But Waltz ends up explaining every little thing. At first, he guides Alita -- and us -- through the sci-fi world and later spills important information that would be far more intriguing if she discovered it herself.

Waltz is given a chance to catch his breath by Keean Johnson as Alita's love interest Hugo. His burgeoning relationship with Alita is also blunted by endless explanation. Over an hour in, Hugo is still leading Alita around and telling her stuff. The secret to Alita's past is unlocked by Hugo taking her somewhere, where she just walks in.

Instead of discovering things or causing things to happen, everything just happens to Alita. In the opening shot, Ido wanders over a scrapheap and finds her. He doesn't dig her out, or risk his life saving her from rival scavengers, or anything that would turn this moment into a story. He just sees her lying there in full view. It's a bland, low-stakes way for the two main characters to meet, and sadly sets the pattern for the rest of the movie. 

Watch this: CNET UK Podcast 550: Robert Rodriguez reveals the secrets of Alita

Alita is forever just bumping into the right people at the right time, and just walking into wherever she wants to go without much resistance. There's rarely a sense she works for or earns anything, making it hard to get behind her struggle. Even the fights, as pretty as they are, fail to be engaging because Alita's high-flying skills make them low-stakes affairs. Contrast that, for example, with The Matrix, in which the hero's awakening skills are undercut by doubt and fear that makes us root for him. 

Even at two hours, it feels like Alita has been substantially edited down. The first act hinges on a murder subplot that's dropped 15 minutes in. Characters are introduced and then disappear. And we don't get much sense of the bad guys actually being bad. Mahershala Ali is particularly wasted as a suave villain whose villainy is almost entirely signalled by his black gloves and shades rather than by actually doing anything nasty. And he's sidelined by a main antagonist who's talked about rather than seen.

There are things to like about the Alita: Battle Angel. The hints of a dark side to the paternal Ido and the lovelorn Hugo are intriguing, although the film wavers in its commitment to those ideas. The star is charming, the body modifications are interesting and the effects are spectacular. But overall, who knew cyborgs could be so boring? 

Correction, Feb. 1, 10:39 a.m. PT: This story initially misspelled the first name of the actor who plays Alita. She is Rosa Salazar.

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