Almost a decade ago, James Cameron’s Avatar matched ground-breaking digital effects with potent storytelling to score a box-office bonanza. Since then, he’s been beavering away on no less than four sequels, the first of which is due out next year. All of which meant he had to relinquish the reins on another long-gestating project, his screenplay adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s1990s Japanese manga saga Gunnm.
Thus it fell to Sin City helmer Robert Rodriguez to take on this mega-budget cyberpunk flick, revolving around a seemingly cutesy heroine with badass fighting skills. With Cameron also on board as producer, expectation was sky-high, but the results prove something of a glittering CGI mishmash.
One very curious decision was to give the elfin heroine such enormous eyes. As portrayed by Rosa Salazar, in motion-capture footage then digitally enhanced, Alita has such outsized peepers it becomes an unnecessary distraction.
She’s a cyborg, recovered from a 26th-century junkyard and pieced back together by Christoph Waltz’s tech whizz. Maintaining a surprisingly sunny disposition as her spluttering memory circuits hint at a far darker backstory, there’s also something slightly creepy about her that keeps viewers at a distance from her emotional journey.
As the full extent of her pre-programmed combat skills become increasingly apparent, the story undoubtedly recalls Blade Runner, though the guiding role played by fatherly Waltz also echoes Gepetto’s relationship with Pinocchio. That intriguing blend of sci-fi heft and classic fable unfortunately gets rather lost in the shuffle, however, as Rodriguez barrels ahead with anodyne teen romance, a serial killer sub-plot, and a murky historical context involving apocalyptic interplanetary conflict.
There’s also much high-octane carnage in and around the Motorball track – dystopian Iron City’s major form of public diversion. Think Rollerball meets Robot Wars, as tooled-up cyborg warriors impale, chop and shred their rivals on their way to victory.
The Motorball mayhem does show Rodriguez and his effects crew in their element, allowing Alita’s pixie-like underdog to demonstrate the breath-taking agility and psychotic edge in competing with the big boys. As might perhaps be expected from the director of the Machete series, the relish with which the film delivers the decapitation and dismemberment of its humanoid supporting robo-cast – not to mention an almost drooling fetishisation of very large blades – mean that a warning is in order for parents thinking of taking children to this 12A-rated movie. Discretion is strongly advised, particularly for younger viewers.
It’s not just parents however, who may find themselves slightly dismayed by the apparent might-is-right message coursing through the film’s circuit boards. While paternal Waltz warns that technology can be dangerous if put to the wrong use, Alita herself doesn’t seem unduly bothered about ripping her opponents to pieces, leaving us with an empty feeling amidst the slice-and-dice.
Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about Alita: Battle Angel is how so much technical expertise (seen at its fullest in the 3D and 3D IMAX versions) is put in service of a confused, overstuffed narrative lacking a genuine human heartbeat.
Alita: Battle Angel is released in cinemas on Wednesday 6 February