While story is probably the most important ingredient that goes into making a great film, that doesn’t mean that the technological aspects of the artform should be ignored. Films tell stories, but so do books. There’s a whole world of technology that goes into filmmaking that’s been tinkered with and improved upon for over a century. Stories are tried and true, not really changing much over time, but technology is changing day by day and becoming obsolete quicker than ever before. It’s always great for filmmaking technology to be pushed forward in every way possible, but you can’t forget to tell a compelling story along the way. 

Alita: Battle Angel takes place on the post-apocalyptic Earth in the year 2563. The world is now basically covered with piles of junk and cyborg builder Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes across the severed head of a woman. He attaches the head to a cyborg body, bringing it to life, and naming her Alita (Rosa Salazar), after his dead daughter. As Alita grows accustomed to her new life, she has memories of a past one, where she was an extraterrestrial warrior. It’s now up to Alita to discover who she really is and defeat all of the evil cyborg baddies in here path… or something.  

Alita: Battle Angel is a big passion project for James Cameron, who only produced and co-wrote here, while handing over the directing reigns to Robert Rodriguez. When you think about it, they’re almost a perfect team, as they’re both very technically minded and big fans of stylish, crazy spectacle. They have no qualms about their weirdness, embracing it all the way. Those qualities are all over this film, with a very neat cyberpunk world featuring people with robotic prosthetics, and warrior androids with scythe arms and metallic tentacles. There’s a lot of weirdness in the technology and presentation of it all, which no doubt comes from the manga and anime roots of the source material. It felt very 90’s and old-school sci-fi, but in a good way, and I was happy that they embraced it, making for a very unique world. It’s so well realized and brilliantly brought to life, with excellent cinematography, production design, and effects. 

Rodriguez made a name for himself with his low budget films, with his Spy Kids films being the most ambitious in scope. Well, those are certainly topped here, thanks to James Cameron’s mountain of cash and penchant for advancing and improving filmmaking technology in any way he can. The direction of the action scenes are near flawless, with loads of creative camerawork and excellent blocking and spatial awareness. All of the effects here are spectacular, feeling totally real and authentic with how they blend in with the live action actors and environments. These two just know how to perfectly utilize special effects, and that’s proved no further than with Alita herself. Her entire design, from being completely CGI, to her big ol’ eyes, was met with a lot of scrutiny, but you can tell it’s all finished here and she’s surprisingly not creepy or uncomfortable to look at. She looks a little strange at first, but you eventually get used to it and she fits right into the rest of it.  

But as George Lucas, in retrospect quite amusingly, said, “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing,” and oh my, was the biggest culprit in making this entire sci-fi epic yawn inducing was the awful script. Say what you will about Avatar being a rip off of other stories, but it still had characters with motivations, a decent amount of depth, and a story with clear progression and stakes. I don’t know what happened with Cameron here, who co-wrote this with the mostly mediocre Laeta Kalogridis, but from top to the bottom, it’s atrocious. From the structure, to the pacing, to the dialogue, to the overall lack of characterization, motivations, and stakes, it’s lacking in pretty much every department. At only 122-minutes, it’s way too fast paced in the beginning, with Alita waking up, looking up to Dr. Ido as a father figure, befriending Hugo, finding out who she used to be, and a whole lot more. It felt like the story and characters had no room to breathe, with no proper characterization and pace to make the story satisfying. I had no idea what I was supposed to care about, what the stakes were, nor what the character’s motivations were, making for a very confusing slog. 

The dialogue is especially terrible, all of it incredibly cliché, predictable, and full of boring exposition. It’s so bland that none of the esteemed actors like Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali can do anything to elevate the material. These are all outstanding actors, but the writing and direction were giving me flashbacks to the Star Wars prequels. I probably also got those flashbacks due to the total flatline of the love story, which was supposed to be the heart and soul of film, I guess. I felt nothing, though, because there was absolutely no chemistry between Alita and her romantic interest Hugo (Keean Johnson). Salazar is decent as the lead, playing the naïve and wondrous personality to great effect, and also sells the character in the action scenes. Again, just like everyone else, she’s held back by the dialogue and direction. There was absolutely nothing Johnson could do, though, no matter how good the filmmakers were. This dude is about as charismatic a brick wall and has no subtle acting talents to boot, making his relationship with Alita and to the story not work at all. Not only was I getting Star Wars prequels vibes, but also Twilight vibes, which I don’t think is something you want in your sci-fi, cyberpunk epic. 

I must hand it to James Cameron, though. He’s just getting more and more impressive with how he advances filmmaking technology, and with Alita: Battle Angel, he devised a way to pump sleeping gas right into the theater! But really, I couldn’t be asked to care about anything that was happening in this film because the filmmakers never bothered to make us. When I wasn’t nearly dozing off from being so bored, I was marveling at the technical mastery of it all, but it still all felt hollow. James Cameron clearly had a grand vision he wanted to bring to life, and he did with the help of Rodriguez, but it was all in service of a story that’s not really there. Hopefully this isn’t a bad omen for Avatar 2… and 3, and 4, and 5. Yeah, get ready for four more of those, everybody. We’re certainly in for a wild ride.


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