By Darren Franich
January 31, 2019 at 07:58 PM EST
Twentieth Century Fox
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  • Movie
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No one told me Alita: Battle Angel was a movie about rollerblading. And we’re talking Xtreme Future Rollerblading. Like, with actual sharp, limb-chopping blades. Like, the best players don’t just wear rollerblades, they are rollerblades. “Alita puts the Blade back in Rollerblade!!!” will be this review’s pull quote.

The year is 2563, the place is Iron City, and the youth only care about Motorball, a full-contact wheel-track blood sport. Think NASCAR plus Metal Slug, but you can only participate if you’re a giant half-human butterfly knife.

Mahershala Ali plays Vector, the kind of nefarious sports CEO who commands players to murder someone during the game, which he watches from his personal skybox. He’s a very powerful man in a dystopian trash city, with no interest in ascending to the rich-person metropolis floating in the sky above. “I’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven,” he says, the first Skater Deathmatch Tycoon to ever quote Milton.

Ali is suddenly everywhere, an Oscar nomination for Green Book, spanning True Detective’s decades. In Alita, he wears sunglasses so large you wonder if he’s trying to hide. Hard to blame him. This manga adaptation is a tired science-fiction odyssey, with bland digital effects piled onto a sappy non-story that feels like a two-hour elevator pitch for a 70-film franchise.

Calling this movie junk does a disservice to the authenticity of trash. But Alita begins in a scrapyard, where kindly cybersurgeon Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a ruined cyborg husk. The droid body’s got a human brain and a heart full of antimatter. Ido conducts some body-transplant surgery, and hey, presto, he’s got a robo-teenager. Meet Alita, titular Battle Angel, played by Rosa Salazar underneath wide-eyed performance capture that looks like one of those Snapchat filters with a special screechy voice-change function.

Who is Alita, really? Where does she come from? It’s possible Salazar gives a good performance, and I hope to see it someday. Her sensitive line readings clash madly with Alita’s digitally juked bot face, which radiates aggressive blankness in every emotional setting. Whatever, really: There are Bravolebrities and middle-aged superheroes who look more plastic than Alita. When she stares at herself in the mirror, the uncanny-valley strangeness is legitimately surreal. And we’re talking about a character who climactically dual-wields a glowsword with a chaingun, so maybe “lack of realism” isn’t a problem.

The bigger issue: You’ve seen this all before. Alita derives from the ’90s manga series Gunnm, by Yukito Kishiro. It makes sense that co-writer James Cameron sparked to the story. Certain sequences simultaneously pay homage to Kishiro’s source material and Cameron’s own genre classics. One main character gets bodychopped into a borgy head-torso with limbs, just like Bishop in Aliens and the T-800 in the original Terminator. And then another main character also gets carved into a borgy head-torso. Rated PG-13: Bring the kids!

The other co-writer is Laeta Kalogridis, creator of Netflix’s future noir Altered Carbon. That show shares one key setting idea with Alita: The rich live in a utopia in the clouds, while the poor live in grounded proletropolis. And like Altered CarbonAlita spends most of its running time teasing a vast universe that seems way more interesting than the bland story you’re watching. In flashbacks, Alita recalls a spacesuited moon battle, and a frontal assault on a sky fortress. The ruined worldscape swirls with mythic intrigue: legends of Martian onslaughtery, ancient skeletons in a crashed spaceship.

Here in the actual movie, Alita meets Hugo (Keann Johnson), a sweetheart skater punk. He is a boy, she is a girl, can I make it anymore obvious? Alita also runs afoul of some bounty hunters. She asks Dyson who she really is, and he doesn’t tell her, until he does: Quite a mystery! Somewhere in the quagmire you find Jennifer Connelly, looking glam in a mink coat, waiting for a subplot. Here’s a talented actress reduced, no joke, to spare parts.

I suspect Cameron dug the cyber-romance of Alita. To demonstrate her passion for Hugo, Alita pulls her antimatter heart right out of her exoskeletal chest. That moment’s cool. Any chemistry at all between the bland young lovers would be cooler. Cameron used to have a gift for sharp dialogue, and all the characters speak in faux-history annotations. “The war wiped out most utilities,” Hugo tells Alita, just a cool teen chatting idly about his world’s infrastructure. Advice for all sci-fi storytellers: The whole point of world building is showing us more than blueprints.

After developing this film for an eon, Cameron handed off directorial duties to Robert Rodriguez. Once upon a time, Rodriguez was one of our most exciting action filmmakers, with a goofy-gore style mashing B-movie ultraviolence with Looney Tunes slapstick. This decade he’s just taking resin hits off his fading IP, sequelizing Spy Kids and Machete and Sin City. And too much of Alita could’ve been shot by any yes-man hack traffic-copping any franchise extension. Maybe cyberpunk is the new steampunk, a genre too nostalgically precious for its own good. You smell the telltale fumes of reheated coolness. “So, she thinks she can punk me, eh?” says villainous Zapan (Ed Skrein), and now we know the word “punk” will survive the apocalypse.

But Rodriguez’s camera comes to life during the Motorball scenes. And Alita almost succeeds as a throwback underdog sports movie, with Alita rising the ranks from back-alley rollerbrawling to arena fame. The big set-piece game spins off a blue-bloody track onto the highways and sewageways of Iron City. At one point Ido exclaims, “You have to keep your mind on the game, Alita!” which is my new favorite loudly bad Christoph Waltz line reading.

Away from the Motorball track, people talk and talk and talk about some great war. And there is a Big Bad Guy who spends this movie teasing toward his central role the next movie. Alita has a powerful robot body, and then she gets an even more powerful robot body, so there’s some character development. A better version of this movie would’ve kept its mind on the game. Better title: Rollerblade RunnerC

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