“Alita: Battle Angel,” directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-written and produced by James Cameron, marks the first time the two filmmakers have collaborated. You can see Cameron’s influence in the way the film is technically proficient but emotionally hollow, and Rodriguez’s influence in the way some of the characters have had their limbs replaced with weapons. It is very much on-brand for both of them. (Cameron shares writing credit with Laeta Kalogridis, who wrote “Terminator: Genysis”).
Based on a Japanese comic (but don’t worry — the film contains no Japanese people), this is flashy, expensive-looking entertainment set in The Future, some 300 hundred years after the collapse of civilization, focused on a kindly cybernetic doctor named Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) who repairs cyborgs free of charge as a service to the ruined wasteland community in which he lives, called Iron City. Earth is basically a garbage dump now, humans and cyborgs scrambling for scraps while the elites live it up in a floating sky city called Zalem.
Among the detritus jettisoned by Zalem is a still-functional female cyborg consciousness that Ido finds and implants into a robot body he had lying around. He names his new cyborg daughter Alita, after his real (dead) daughter, which Ido thinks is charming but his ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly) thinks is weird. Alita (played by Rosa Salazar) has giant eyes and a creepy CGI robot face, lest the audience find her relatable. She doesn’t remember her former life or what type of cyborg she was, but she’s incredibly strong and a great fighter, and she’s a natural at motorball (roller derby on motorized roller blades), Iron City’s favorite cyborg sport.
Ido is a bounty hunter in his spare time, and one particular cyborg criminal, Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), wants to get him and his little girl, too. Another cyborg named Zapan (Ed Skrein) is also given the assignment of killing Alita. It seems that in addition to whatever other secrets Alita may hold, her robot heart is a powerful energy source. Up on Zalem, a mysterious figure named Nova controls things, occasionally shoving his consciousness into someone else’s body — Mahershala Ali’s, specifically — in order to make a statement. Oh, and Alita gets a human boyfriend, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who is completely unnecessary to her, the film, and mankind.
Rodriguez, directing his first movie in five years, brings his usual energy. The fight scenes are coherent and exciting (as they should be when they involve beings who are half-robot), and the motorball sequences are rad fun. But the rest is listless futuristic mumbo-jumbo without a single interesting character, building to a conclusion that’s really just a setup for the next film. Only the budget and the name recognition separates this from any number of SyFy channel movies.
C+ (2 hrs., 2 min.; )