It's been five years since director Robert Rodriguez's last feature film, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," and he makes his return in a big way with the outlandish, over-the-top manga adaptation "Alita: Battle Angel." No one can say the film is not a big swing — it truly goes for it, and does so with jaw-dropping vim and vigor. But does it connect?
Somewhat. Second question — who is this massive $200 million blockbuster film for? It's unclear, as the film is incredibly violent, with a main character that espouses a decidedly innocent worldview.
It was obvious from the early glimpses at the film's main character, Alita, that Rodriguez and company were not holding back with the aesthetic. Actress Rosa Salazar's eyes have been digitally enlarged to mimic the look of the 1990 cyberpunk manga "Battle Angel Alita" by Yukito Kishiro. But the character's entire face exists in a digital uncanny valley. It signifies she's not like the rest of the citizens in the post-apocalyptic Iron City — she's a cyborg, scooped up from the trash heap by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who implants her core into a robotic body salvaged from his dead daughter.
Despite the apocalypse, it's all right in Iron City. It's a multicultural melting pot of cultures and robotics, where humans rely on biomedical tech. Cyborgs and humans come together to cheer on the wild professional sport that is Motorball, a cross between speed-skating, Nascar and Quidditch. The grand champion gets the lucky chance to ascend to Zalem, "the last of the great sky cities," which floats above Iron City and sucks up factory goods through a giant tube.
Alita is a blank slate and experiences everything in Iron City with a childlike wonder, from chocolate to Motorball and to her first crush, on a street scavenger named Hugo (Keean Johnson). She remembers nothing of her past, but she possesses unique fighting skills, which she puts to use defending her loved ones, and eventually as a "hunter warrior" bounty hunter. In her most perilous moments, she receives a memory from her past — ninja fighting on the moon, ascending the giant tube to Zalem.
Eventually, Alita finds the robotic body that fits her skills, a foreign piece of tech that's essentially an alien weapon, all the better to violently dismember robots with. Co-writer James Cameron has embarrassingly described "Alita: Battle Angel" as a metaphor for female puberty, and the filmmakers execute that symbolism in truly bone-headed fashion with her new fighting body. Like the rest of the film, it's so insane it has to be seen to be believed.
Alita isn't like the cinematic warrior princesses and action heroines we've seen before. She's emotionally a child, wide-eyed and filled with naive selflessness. But it's easy to get frustrated with Alita, especially as she pours her talents into her dopey, good-for-nothing boyfriend.
As a director, Rodriguez brings a go-for-broke sense of world-building and wildly fantastical style that can be intoxicating, but the film is failed by the weak script co-written by Cameron, Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis. Character motivations are sloppy, storylines dropped, details muddy. With tonal inconsistencies and poorly written characters, any awe inspired by "Alita: Battle Angel" is replaced with a profound sense of confusion.