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Alita: Battle Angel feels like a James Cameron tribute movie

Teen cyborg epic Alita heavily recycles its creator’s history.

Just as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One made a scrapyard of his popcorn-movie past in its adolescent futuristic adventure, Alita: Battle Angel feels like it’s James Cameron’s turn to host a cinematic garage sale for the kids.

Busy with Avatar sequels, Cameron, as producer and writer, delegated the directorship of the long-gestating project, based on the 1990s Japanese manga series Gunnm, to Robert Rodriguez, whose live-action cartoons have included his grim Sin City movies and the bubblegum Spy Kids series.

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But Alita still feels like a Cameron tribute movie, from a Terminator visual gag at the start, and touches of Aliens and The Abyss, to an ending reminiscent of a certain nautical-themed blockbuster. Quite an achievement for a film about a wide-eyed amnesiac teenage cyborg, Alita (a motion-captured Rosa Salazar), set in 2563. Having been reassembled from scrap parts by a kindly boffin (Christoph Waltz), Alita finds herself adapting to life among the proles in Iron City, above which floats an exclusive utopia named Zalem.

The ground-level dwellers have motorball, essentially a death-or-glory roller derby of humanoid rollerblading powertools, to keep them entertained. With her physical prowess, it’s clear Alita is soon headed for the pro league. That’s once she’s fallen for Hugo, a dull bad-boy with big dreams, and figured out her identity via the inevitable flashbacks.

Alita starts off promisingly, with Salazar and Weta Digital creating a cyber-character with quite a presence, who might have some of The Incredibles’ Violet in her DNA. But all too soon, Alita’s story dissolves into an endless loop of fight scenes and flying amputated cyborg limbs, while the plot goes into severe software meltdown. Having cost about US$200 million, this attempted franchise-starter can’t be called a cheap Cameron knock-off, but it’s still a bland and boring one.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

Video: 20th Century Fox

This article was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.