In an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, an artsy-fartsy culinary maestro makes a tomato look just like a strawberry. The vast, overwhelming pointlessness of this is a mirror for the production of Alita: Battle Angel. The best sci-fi cleverly asks “What if?” Alita makes one ask “Why tho?” Why use a human actress (Rosa Salazar) to film all the scenes and then digitally replace her entirely in order to give her slightly bigger eyes? Why have the main character paint her face with the blood of a murdered dog? Why dedicate so much plot to robot-football-quidditch? Why make a damn tomato look like a damn strawberry?

Abandoned by cinematic barnacle James Cameron well into development, director Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of a classic cyberpunk manga is simultaneously always loud and busy without once producing tangible momentum or energy. It’s almost like there’s a reason we put actual human beings into acting roles and not just lines of computer code. Like nearly all of Cameron’s writing, Alita is profoundly cliched and simplistic.

A hundred billion years from now, or some such nonsense, a city that floats above another city dumps a cyborg out with the trash. That cyborg is found by Dr. Dyson Ido, a name that simply screams for a German-Austrian actor like Christoph Waltz to play him, right? Ido fixes up the robot, who has lost her memory, and renames her Alita, after his dead daughter. Alita becomes insta-enamored with a teenage boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson). This is creepy because she’s mostly plastic and metal and somehow both a classic “born sexy yesterday” character and several hundred years older than Hugo. Alita and Ido fight creeper robots who kill innocent people while she attempts to regain her memories and join the robot-football-quidditch team so she can one day go to the big city in the sky again. Or something.

Like the titular ancient ingenue, Alita the film is an impossible contradiction. Loaded with action that is never interesting, anchored by what was likely a wonderfully human performance stripped of its humanity by special effects, the entire thing is just too much of everything without being enough of anything. This is the kind of movie where Jennifer Connelly just casually chills for the evening in insanely intricate lingerie, like women do in between their scheduled sorority pillow fights, and Jai Courtney has a one-scene cameo.

Honestly, Alita is the kind of movie that would have worked better if it were worse. The obviously enormous budget makes what could have been a weird, scrappy sci-fi trash into an attempted epic, which it very much isn’t. And not just because Jai Courtney appears but also because of that. This movie, like Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell before it, is more a testimony to Hollywood’s dismissive and stupidly stubborn unwillingness to embrace adult animation. A cartoon doesn’t inherently carry the same burdens of reality that this film buckles beneath. The message shoved in the bottle of this inevitable financial failure shouldn’t be that anime and manga source material is unpalatable to American audiences; it should be that medium matters, and this was the wrong dang one. Again.

Grade = D

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