A passion project for producer James Cameron (who passed it on to director Robert Rodriguez so he could pursue his four planned sequels to Avatar), Alita: Battle Angel is an adaptation of the manga series Gunnm, sixteen years in the making. What emerges is a fascinatingly detailed world and a wonderfully compelling lead trapped in a clunky script and a narrative that spends its entire time setting up a (presumably) better sequel. The sparks of brilliance occasionally witnessed make it a particularly frustrating cinematic experience.
Pulled from a junkyard, Alita is a female cyborg with a forgotten past and huge untapped potential. As she explores her new surroundings, she begins to unpick the mystery of who she is, as well as exposing enemies that threaten her new life and the friends she is making.
A great deal of expense has gone into Alita: Battle Angel, with a cast packed with talent. Yet almost no one manage to escape the CGI blob they find themselves in. Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly, Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali do not have a single well-written line of dialogue between them. Waltz, in particular, is given huge wedges of exposition to spiel off periodically. It is remarkable how little the characters in Alita: Battle Angel leave an impression, with energy levels noticeably dropping when our hero is off-screen. And yet Rosa Salazar makes for such a compelling protagonist you almost forgive the film its shortcomings. A breezy, charismatic turn, she is a funny, endearing presence that you wish were in a better film. It feels ironic that she is the most human character here, given the android nature of Alita.
And this really summarises the problem with Alita: Battle Angel. On the one hand, it stirs curiosity in the evocative world it introduces, even able to thrill in several of its action sequences. And yet at the same time, it is lumbered with terrible dialogue, a feeling that it has so much to set up before we reach a payoff that can't completely satisfy. The film ends not with a crescendo but with an ellipsis. This feels particularly odd given that Cameron is skilled at both setting up franchises (Terminator, Avatar) and extending these (Terminator 2, Aliens) without each film losing their stand-alone quality.