About an hour or so into Alita: Battle Angel, during another of the romantic subplot scenes shared by the cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) and the "meat body" named Hugo (Keean Johnson), I zoned out and had a little conversation with myself. The topic of discussion: "Is this the best movie Robert Rodriguez has made since Sin City?" The conversation did not last long, and quickly arrived at a resounding yes. This led to a more interesting question: "Is the key to a solid Robert Rodriguez movie the presence of a collaborator?" Again, not a long conversation. After From Dusk 'Til Dawn, Sin City and now Alita: Battle Angel, there can be no doubt that Robert Rodriguez works best when he's got someone riding shotgun.
But unlike those previous efforts, Alita: Battle Angel (Rodriguez's best movie in years though it may be) just didn't work for me. It certainly looks cool. The set pieces are delivered confidently and with great polish. The performances are mostly strong, particularly the one turned in by Salazar, the film's deadly heroine. The trouble was, I simply didn't care much about Alita: Battle Angel's goings-on, of which there are many. For 122 minutes, Rodriguez's film runs its viewer through a gauntlet of new characters, gee-whiz concepts and story beats until - quite suddenly! - it ends, and at no point was I invested in the story at hand. I enjoyed looking at it, to a point, but I just didn't care. In other words: I don't think Alita: Battle Angel's a bad movie, it just wasn't for me.
So what can I tell you? There's a doctor, a robot specialist named Ido, played by Christoph Waltz. He lives in a city situated underneath another city, a luxurious floating metropolis known as Zalem. One day, while sifting through the ever-expanding garbage heap forming under Zalem's enormous sky-anus, the doctor happens upon the remains of a cyborg girl. He takes what's left of her home, grafts a cybernetic body onto her head and shoulders, and begins raising her as his own. Enchanted by the world around her, the newly-christened Alita learns about food, human culture, and begins to unravel the story of how she ended up in that garbage heap. It's a dark conspiracy that goes all the way to the top (obvs), and along the way Alita fights other robots, competes in a Motorball tournament, and falls in love with the aforementioned Hugo.
Those scenes between Alita and Hugo are rough, man. Johnson's not exactly overflowing with charisma, and it's never really made clear why Alita would be so infatuated with the dude. Sure, he drives a one-wheeled motorcycle and doesn't seem to mind that Alita's, y'know, not at all human, but there's never any real spark between the two; they seem to fall in love simply because the script demands it (at one point Alita literally pulls out her own heart and offers it to Hugo, and the moment feels so unearned as to actually be kind of insulting). Whenever the film stops to give these two lovebirds time to get to know one another, the whole thing comes to a shuddering halt. When you're inevitably watching Alita: Battle Angel on Netflix in a few months, these are the scenes you should take bathroom breaks during.
The set pieces in Alita: Battle Angel are mostly fun to watch, though. There's a showdown in an alleyway between Alita and a number of cyborg assassins that works like gangbusters, and the Motorball tournament is genuinely exciting. It helps that the numerous robot characters are all interesting to look at, each one pleasingly gimmicky in its own way: there's a gigantic brute robot played by Jackie Earle Haley who has whips for fingers; Jeff Fahey shows up as a robot cowboy (complete with a hat and vest!) who oversees a posse of robot dogs; there's a lady robot with blades for arms, and another one who has a sword that can cut through anything. If I saw Alita: Battle Angel at 13 years old, lemme tell ya, my goddamn brain would've been on fire with excitement.
It's not just the robots, either: the world-building in Alita's solid, too, and decidedly less cheap-looking than a number of other Rodriguez efforts (that's good news for Fox, who apparently poured quite a bit of money into this one). Our earliest glimpses of Alita made the film look cartoonish and somewhat sparse, but the final product's filled with details and neat little things happening in the margins. Some of the green screen work is fairly clunky - a few shots straight-up caused me to wince - but for the most part, you'll never be bored watching what's happening onscreen.
And, hey, here's some more good news: this movie is filled with people you probably like! Mahershala Ali shows up as a villain by the name of Vector, and it's a testament to Ali's inherent coolness as a human being that he never once seems ridiculous, even while reciting ridiculous dialogue in ridiculous outifts. Jennifer Connelly's in here, as well, and brings a chilly elegance to a character that would've likely been entirely forgettable in lesser hands. Ed Skrein plays the robot with the super-sharp sword, and the fun he's clearly having with the role is undeniably infectious. Also worth noting: Alita: Battle Angel contains two extremely surprising cameos, one of which will be of major interest to the Birth.Movies.Death. readership. You'll know it when you see it.
If it sounds like I'm going easy on Alita: Battle Angel, it's because I probably am. It's been a long time since I felt like Rodriguez was really pushing himself as a director, and I think the effort he's put in on this one is admirable. Whatever guidance or wisdom executive producer James Cameron had to impart definitely had an impact, and I think a lot of folks will really dig this one. Again, though: all of the above just wasn't enough to get me onboard. In practice, Alita: Battle Angel's a lot like the robots that populate its world - lifelike and meticulously crafted, but lacking the heart and soul that would have pushed it beyond being merely okay.