Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A cyborg finds her true identity

Alita: Battle Angel boasts lots of CGI razzle-dazzle and a story that doesn't sustain.

Alita: Battle Angel revolves around an avalanche of CGI, production design, 3D and motion-capture acting, enough razzle-dazzle to satisfy those who want to be razzled and dazzled -- at least for a while. Director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron, neither strangers to the world of effects, have teamed for a massive display of technical prowess.

I'm wondering then why screenwriters Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis, working from a 1990 manga series by a Yukito Kishiro, couldn't come up with at least one scintillating line of dialogue.

To summarize my reaction to Alita: The visual environment created by Rodriquez and Cameron held my interest for three-quarters of the movie. After that? Not so much.

So who is Alita? She's a cyborg who has been tossed onto a scrap heap in Iron City, the lower-class part of a society that survived what every dystopian movie insists on, an apocalypse. Named by Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor who rebuilds cyborgs, Alita comes to life as a teenager with a bad case of amnesia. She remembers nothing about her origins.

Once she's mobile and active, Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), another scavenger. A kid of the streets, Hugo has an interest in the futuristic sport of Motorball, which looks depressingly like the sport that director Norman Jewison and writer William Harrison cooked up in the 1975 thriller, Rollerball.

A super-charged version of Roller Derby wasn't especially interesting in 1975 and it's no more interesting 43 years later, even as Alita emerges as one of the game's stars. Guys and enhanced cyborgs are no match for her, especially when she gets a spiffy upgrade in the form of a sleek new body.

Villains, of course, are on call. They arrive in the form of Dr. Ido's former wife (Jennifer Connelly) and Vector (Marhershala Ali), the man who controls the game of Motorball. Vector promises that Motorball champions will ascend to a mysterious upper region to which all the downtrodden residents of Iron City aspire.

The arc of Alita's journey -- the discovery of her past and of her true destiny -- is, I think, meant to give the movie its emotional heft. But as a character, Alita (Rosa Salazar) has a juvenile quality that may not please those who prefer sci-fi served with an intellectual garnish.

It's not her character but her physical qualities that seem most interesting, providing you can overlook (and you probably can't) orb-like eyes that might have been inspired by a Keane painting.

A romance between Alita and Hugo skates along the surface, ignoring obvious questions such as how they're going to ... well... you know.

Cameron (Titanic and Avatar) reportedly has been interested in this story for 20 years. He enlisted Rodriguez to help execute his long-standing dream. Rodriguez (Spy Kids and Sin City) seems like a natural for a megaton cyberpunk fantasy. The whole thing should have resulted in a killer collaboration. Instead, we get a movie in which early promise eventually fades and the prospect of sequels -- yes, they're suggested -- fails to create much by way of anticipation. Scrappy at the outset, Alita eventually loses its kick.

No comments: