It’s 400 years after the Fall and all that’s left is a utopian floating city no one is allowed to go to, and the trash heap underneath it that serves as the setting for the two hours of painful dialogue, exhaustingly tedious CGI fight scenes, and complete lack of characterization that James Cameron has apparently spent the last 20 years trying to get on screen.
Christoph Waltz plays a doctor who repairs cyborgs, but doesn’t charge poor people, who used to build battlebots, who also is a bounty hunter, and used to live in the floating city, and also his daughter was chronically ill, and then she got murdered, and his ex works for the bad guy. It’s kind of a lot.
But don’t worry, the eponymous protagonist keeps things simpler by just being a Manic Pixie Dream Murderbot who only has two personality traits: wanting to punch things and wanting to snog Hugo. Her character does not develop in any way over the course of the movie, other than gradually punching bigger things. Despite being stuck in a cybernetic body built for a teenage girl, she can rip apart 20-foot tall mechs with her bare hands because she knows kung fu. I mean panzer kunst, which I assume is the Hitler Youth of martial arts. But I’m willing to accept Jedi in my fiction, so I’m not one to dwell on that point.
The relationship between Waltz and Alita is incredibly creepy at face value and gets more cringe-worthy the more you learn over the course of the movie. Upon finding her head in a scrapyard, he staples it onto a body meant for a 12-year-old girl, dresses her in clothes to match, names her after his dead daughter, and treats her like a child. He gives no answers, no explanations, and just expects her to act like a daughter in something straight out of a serial killer’s playbook. “Be home before dark for dinner,” he insists to the amnesiac robot without a digestive system.
And then we find out that he knows from the start that she is not a child, but is a goddamned special-forces soldier. He knows she’s an adult when he finds her, and then infantilizes and tries to control her for the entire movie and we’re supposed to see him as a good guy? Give me Hans Landa over that entire pile of misogynistic bullshit wrapped up in father knows best gift-wrapping.
Hugo, that obligatory love interest, is literally the first dude she sees when she walks out of Waltz’s Freudian Factory. Hugo is a 50-year-old man’s idea of what 14-year-old girls should find attractive. Imagine distilling every Shia LeBeouf role into a singularity of douche. It is utterly inexplicable at any point why Alita falls instantly in love at first sight with him and his stupid unicycle motorcycle. Given that most of the plot of the movie is driven by Alita swooning “BUT I LOVE HIM,” it’s problematic that he’s a sentient shit stain.
The movie as a whole has painfully atrocious dialogue, and none more so than the conversations revolving around Romeo and Cyber Juliet. “Live by your own rules!” … “She’s not my girlfriend!” … “I don’t like sand.” It’s basically a racist caricature away from being the Star Wars prequels.
Most of the rest of the plot revolves around Alita wanting to play a fictional game called Motorball in which cyborgs on rollerblades beat each other up on a track trying to get a metal ball into a hole. Rimshot. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is literally the plot of Rollerball. It’d be moderately clever if it was just a background reference, but easily half the action in the movie is this idiotic battlebot roller derby. Twenty years working on this, and Cameron was like, “Okay cyborg teen girl murder bot, but what this movie really needs is Pod Racing except if I could plagiarize a Chris Klein movie that rebooted a seventies B-movie, that’d really be great.”
The action is an incoherent, unremarkable mess of endless CGI glittering around slapping other CGI. The characters are so two-dimensional they don’t cast a shadow at noon. Their actions often have little consistent logic from scene to scene.
Perhaps most disappointing, and surprising given that this is adapted from a series of graphic novels, is that the world itself is so flat and unpopulated. It’s all visuals familiar from a hundred other sci-fi films, with none of the little textures that make a world feel vibrant and real. Good science fiction, good stories, make a world that’s bigger on the inside. They make you feel like you’re only catching the surface of an infinitely detailed universe just as large and complex as our own. Shitty stories are flat, the entire world is what you see on the screen.
Oh, and the only sympathetic character in the entire movie is the wee little dog that Alita befriends. Naturally, it gets murdered halfway through and she smears its blood on her face like war paint. Get fucked, Cameron.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox