"The future isn't what it used to be." When French philosopher Paul Valéry wrote that in 1937, he wasn't bemoaning a lack of imagination in bloated dystopian tentpoles. He was expressing the pessimism prevalent among European intellectuals following World War I. The more things change, though, the more they stay the same. His words might have been just as pithy a response to a viewing of Alita: Battle Angel. The experience could leave the most ardent film fan pessimistic about the state of Hollywood entertainment.
Like WWI, this film was a dreadful idea. Also like that humanitarian horror, the latest from formerly fun director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) is violent, noisy, hokey, derivative and devoid of meaning. Cowritten by the filmmaker with James Cameron (Avatar) and Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys) and based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro, the movie is little more than a $200 million mashup of tropes from previous bloated dystopian tentpoles.
From the start, Alita's appetite for appropriation is on shameless display. The first thing we see is a sky city whose designers managed to rip off three — count 'em, three — better films simultaneously. Zalem, where the 1 percent live in 2563, hovers above the squalid, overcrowded Iron City, home to the rest of the human race along with a population of robots.
It's impossible to miss the similarity between Zalem — poised above the bustling, crumbling dump that's become the meme for postapocalyptic civilization — and the mammoth alien ship poised above the bustling, crumbling District 9. Or the fact that the bloated dystopian tentpole Elysium built that same city in 2013. Not content to steal from two futuristic effects fests in the first five minutes, Alita's creators also lift the trademark H.R. Giger aesthetic from the Alien franchise, applying it liberally to the floating paradise. Like people automatically want to live in a place that looks like the Nostromo just because it's the future.
That opening also introduces us to Christoph Waltz rummaging through a mountain of junk. He plays Dr. Dyson Ido, a scientist who specializes in repurposing robot parts. When he finds the head and partial torso of a female cyborg, he naturally carries them back to his lab and attaches them to the android body he constructed for his late daughter.
The next morning, Alita wakes to find herself with gleaming new arms and legs but no memory of her old life. I should probably add that she's a cartoon, a digital creation that looks like she was ejected from one of the Keane paintings in Big Eyes. Rosa Salazar provides the basis for the character. Performance-capture technology and CGIs do the rest.
Appallingly dumb, unimaginative developments and dialogue ensue for two interminable hours. Alita, for example, falls for a human boy (Keean Johnson), learns to play motorball (Rollerball with Transformers-style robots), discovers she's trained in martial arts, rumbles with bad-guy bots and gets an upgrade to a new body with bigger bionic breasts. I'm not making that up. Or that the boy then enthuses, "You're the most human person I've ever met."
So, if you're looking for comic-book-quality characters, mindless mayhem and postapocalyptic visuals you looked at already in Blade Runner, Dark City, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, Jupiter Ascending, Ready Player One and Mortal Engines, I really can't recommend Alita: Battle Angel highly enough. If, however, you're looking for anything infinitesimally more interesting, this isn't a film you want in your future.