Alita: Battle Angel loses the fight to continue Cameron's legacy

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

When James Cameron ties his name to a production, he raises the potential for the movie’s exposure and success.

For decades, he’s been attached to classics like The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens and more. His films Titanic and Avatar are the two highest-grossing films in movie history. It’s fair to say that Cameron is a filmmaking legend and moviegoers are correct in assuming that any project he has ties to has the potential to be excellent.

However, it’s also fair to say that he does not have the Midas touch; for all of his successes, Cameron has also been a part of more than a few disappointments. Alita: Battle Angel can be classified as the latter. 

Despite debuting at the top of an otherwise weak Presidents Day weekend — perhaps due to Cameron’s name being attached to the project — the producer and screenwriter’s latest film, directed by the acclaimed Robert Rodriguez, is quite a far cry from Avatar.

The manga-based flick is set in the distant future, where Alita, a cyborg, is trying to navigate the cyberpunk world around her after waking up in the office of a friendly doctor who rescued her from the junkyard.

The rest of the plot gets muddled in overdone clichés and blatant sequel-baiting with a few occasional bright spots interspersed throughout.

From the beginning, it seems that Alita can’t decide what it wants to be. Maybe that’s the rub when adapting a screenplay from such rich source material — the complete collection of Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm series is 2,000 pages long — but it hampers what could have otherwise been an impressive film.   

The movie dances with being a futuristic coming-of-age story, then abruptly becomes a tale about the vigilantes within the city, before shifting into a sports movie revolving around “motorball,” while simultaneously trying to cram in a love story.

Any one of these individual plot lines is fine in and of itself, but the movie never sticks with any of them long enough for the viewer to ultimately care how they are resolved.

It’s possible that this is by design, though, because Alita is already preoccupied with positioning itself to become a franchise before the credits roll.

A surprise appearance by a notable actor late in the film is so obviously trying to set up sequels that it completely takes the audience out of the movie.

Cameron and Rodriguez’s assumption that this feature — which cost the studio close to $200 million to make — is going to be such a massive success, to the point where they already began plotting out subsequent installments in the series, is both arrogant and misguided.

By the end of Alita, it’s unlikely that audiences will be clamoring for another. More likely, they will be asking themselves how they were duped into seeing a movie that resembles so many other movies that came before it.

Alita borrows aspects from a lot of different movies. One can easily see the influence of films like Blade Runner, Dark City, The Matrix, Jupiter Ascending and Ready Player One heavily throughout the movie; it would be fine, if the movie itself had built on any of its predecessors instead of just mirroring their visuals, character archetypes and cartoonish violence.

The only thing that separates Alita from any of the aforementioned flicks is the protagonist’s unnecessarily enormous CGI eyes, which — much like Rami Malek’s fake teeth in Bohemian Rhapsody — are more than a little distracting during the opening sequences.

Still, there are plenty of things to enjoy about this movie. Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz give strong performances as Alita and Dr. Dyson Ido, respectively, that suggest they also bought into Cameron’s visions of a franchise, while talents like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are both thoroughly underused. Everyone involved, however, does gives an honest performance.

Mostly, Alita is at its strongest when the audience doesn’t have to think about the plot and the mostly flat characters.

Every time Alita springs into action, it’s easy to get lost in the fun of it all.

Rodriguez thrives by giving the audience exactly what it wants: surreal brutality between a realistic animated heroine and her cyborg foes. It can be easy to forget why they are fighting in the first place, but that’s probably for the best.

After the first hour, moviegoers can possibly be tricked into thinking that this film actually has the potential to be Cameron’s next big hit before the second half gradually pushes that idea out of their heads.

Overall, the action-packed scenes and stunning visual effects seem to be enough to make this movie a success overseas and potentially propel it into a series. Hopefully, Cameron and Rodriguez will learn from their mistakes and spend more time developing a coherent script next time around.