While James Cameron’s fans wait and wait for an “Avator” sequel — it’s been ten years and counting — they will have to make do with another CGI-dependent science-fiction spectacular, which Cameron co-wrote and co-produced before handing the project onto Robert Rodriguez to direct. “Alita: Battle Angel” is adapted from a manga series by Yukito Kishiro which was published between 1990 and 1995, back when its cyberpunk concepts must have seemed a lot fresher than they do today.
Drawing material from about half of the series’ run, Cameron wrote three hours’ worth of screenplay, and Rodriguez landed the directing job by boiling it down by a third. Alas, it is all too apparent that “Alita: Battle Angel” was supposed to have been longer. The film is stuffed with so many plot strands and so many different genres (sports movie, YA rebellion movie, bounty-hunter movie) that it never gets moving.
The setting is Iron City in 2563, three centuries after a war known as “The Fall” wiped out much of civilization. The poorer survivors are now crammed into a tumbledown metropolis, while the wealthy elite reside in a bauble-shaped habitat called Zalem, which hovers above Iron City much like the alien spaceship in Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9,” and the space station in the same director’s “Elysium.” (“Alita: Battle Angel” is the kind of film which forces you to use the words “much like” regularly.)
Zalem excretes its waste into an Iron City scrapheap, much like the one at the start of “Wall-E”, and it is here that a kindly cybernetics expert, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), finds the head of a humanoid teenage girl. It is, he realizes, an artificial head, but it has an organic brain inside. Taking it back to his storefront laboratory, he attaches it to a metal body with the aid of an assistant (Idara Victor, “Rizzoli & Isles”) who says so little that I assumed for a while that she was mute. The girl wakes up, with no memory of her previous existence, and the Doctor names her Alita.
The film’s super-strong, super-fast heroine is played by Rosa Salazar (“Bird Box”), but thanks to some cutting-edge performance capture, Salazar herself has been replaced by a photorealistic CGI character who looks almost completely human, except for her enormous manga eyes. The impressive thing about the CGI is that the viewer soon gets used to these saucer-sized peepers. But why Rodriguez didn’t just show us Salazar’s own face is anyone’s guess.
Maybe the Bambi eyes are meant to emphasize the character’s blithe, childlike innocence. You might think that regaining consciousness after being dead for years would be upsetting, but Alita is a perky Pinocchio with none of the existential angst suffered by the amnesiac cyborg fighting machine in “Ghost in the Shell.” Her sunny disposition is refreshingly unusual in this type of sci-fi, but her lackadaisical attitude towards her past life does sap the narrative of its urgency. If she doesn’t care who she used to be, then why should we?
Instead of fretting about her mysterious origins, Alita concentrates on the pleasures of coming back to life. One of these pleasures is playing Motorball — “Rollerball” meets a monster truck rally — a sport which takes up much of the film’s running time without ever seeming intrinsic to Alita’s story. Another pleasure is flirting chastely with her bland love interest, Hugo (Keean Johnson, “Nashville”), a cute boy with a leather jacket, a souped-up unicycle, and great hair; whatever the downsides of the 26th century, the dentistry, hairdressing and skin-care regimes are clearly first-rate.
Mind you, there don’t appear to be many downsides. Iron City must be one of the most liveable post-apocalypses in cinema history. The sun shines, the multi-cultural inhabitants are friendly, and cyborgs and humans get along well. True, the skyscrapers look like stacks of rickety air-conditioning units, but there is a remarkable number of stone buildings from the 20th century and earlier. What’s more, just beyond the city walls there are miles of lush, unspoiled countryside which further diminish the film’s urgency. Hugo and other characters dream of moving up to Zalem, “the last of the great sky cities,” but why? If they built themselves a cabin in their local Eden, surely they would be just as happy.
Still, there is trouble in paradise, even if the nature of that trouble is never very well established. The film’s main villain is Vector (Mahershala Ali), a big figure in the world of Motorball, among other rackets. His sidekick, whose haute couture is almost as stylish as his, is Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Doctor Ido’s ex. Their reasons for disliking Alita are fuzzy, but the result is that she keeps being attacked by hulking cyborg mercenaries and bounty hunters with such catchy names as Zapan (Ed Skrein, “If Beale Street Could Talk”), Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), and Nyssiana (Eiza González, “Baby Driver”).
The actors playing these cyborgs, like Salazar, have had their bodies replaced by computer-generated metal torsos of various shapes and sizes, and they are a treat to look at: Mean Machine Angel from the Judge Dredd comic strips in “2000AD” seems to have been a major influence. When Alita is having acrobatic slow-motion fights with these elaborately weaponized robo-people, or hurtling around a track on jet-powered rollerblades in the Motorball sequences, the film has so much pulpy dynamism that you can enjoy the ride.
When the action stops, though, it’s obvious that nothing much adds up, and nothing much is resolved. What, for instance, is life like in Zalem? Who is its Oz-like ruler, Nova (Edward Norton, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo)? What does the planet Mars have to do with it all? And, crucially, who was Alita in her previous incarnation?
Rodriguez must have planned to answer these questions in a sequel, but don’t hold your breath. His film is probably too rushed, unfocused and tonally erratic to attract an audience, in which case the wait for an “Alita: Battle Angel” sequel will be even longer than the wait for an “Avatar” one.