A mega-budget sci-fi action-adventure movie produced and co-written by James Cameron—and directed by Robert Rodriguez—is being released in the United States this week, and you’d barely know it. Alita: Battle Angel, a cyberpunk epic based on a popular manga with a strong pedigree behind the camera, should be an event movie, advertised and anticipated as one of the big films of the year.
Originally, that was the plan. But Fox pushed the release back from July 2018 to around Christmas—arguably an upgrade—then bumped it again to February 2019. This slot is not necessarily the dumping ground it once was; Black Panther was released at about the same time last year, and became a global phenomenon. But that movie had the Marvel hype machine firmly behind it, and rode a long blitzkrieg of marketing to its boggling success. Alita has not had such a push, at least not domestically, becoming a once-promising release since tossed into the junkyard, unable to earn its studio’s confidence. Which is a shame, though not surprising.
Alita joins a small list of blockbuster-y sci-fi/fantasy movies that have tried to challenge the superhero-Star Wars hegemony in recent years, only to be beaten back down, mishandled (or almost unhandled) by their studios and further widening the gap between Disney product and everything else. It may sound strange to mourn big corporate enterprises that tried and failed, but there is something awfully glum about how hard it has been for any attempt at non-Disney-owned world-building to gain traction—at the North American box office, at least. (Alita is currently tracking at a dismal $20 million to $30 million in its opening weekend.)
Maybe Alita will do much better overseas, where audiences seem a bit more open to the earnest appeal of new I.P., so long as it has enough monsters and gizmos and whizzing set pieces. But even if the film makes up some of its budget outside of North America, it still seems destined to join the ranks of Universal’s Mortal Engines, STX’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and Warner’s Jupiter Ascending as franchise kickoffs that badly stumbled, movies that deserved more attention—and appreciation—than they got. They’re films that flamed out because their studios gave up on them, maybe, but also because moviegoers seem increasingly wary of anything without a long tail of past branding. Which should maybe worry us some.
That’s not to say that those previous duds were all great movies. Jupiter Ascending, directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (who also got left in the cold with Cloud Atlas), teeters on the line between good silly and bad silly. It’s a kind of grand-scale mess, but one warm with good intentions. At least it’s trying something; it’s also the only film discussed here that isn’t based on anything else. Jupiter is its own mad creation, shunted off to mid-winter, where it died a quick, ignoble death. Valerian, by Luc Besson, is a slightly different kind of belly flop into outer space. Cobbled together from financing from various investors, it had the look of a risky gamble from the beginning. (It’s the highest-budgeted French-produced film ever, by a significant margin.) It got a wide, if under-promoted, summer release and tanked. For all its flaws, there was something to love there, a space-opera styling that had an engagingly retro feel—even when the story was confused and the lead performances were less than inspiring.
I took a particular shine to Mortal Engines when I saw it in December, mostly because I couldn’t believe it had been made at all. An alternately grinding and corny maximalist story of cities on wheels rolling around a post-apocalyptic Earth, Christian Rivers’s film (based on a book series) had an exciting moxie, the nerviness of a movie seemingly arriving from a dimension where the Divergent series was good and successful, where Incarceron had actually been adapted, where people were still hungry for more and more new worlds, instead of incremental expansion of a few existing ones. It’s an oddly heady movie, Mortal Engines, provoking a mix of nostalgia and dismay.
And now comes Alita, which I think is the crowning jewel of these doomed diversions from the Star Wars-M.C.U. industrial complex. Rodriguez has been, let’s say, uneven in his filmmaking, ranging from the sublimely gunky (From Dusk Till Dawn) to whatever Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was. With Alita—sourced from Yukito Kishiro’s beloved manga—he finds a confident and thrilling stride, balling up many reference points (The Matrix, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cameron’s Dark Angel TV series, and more) into something that feels fresh despite its obvious influences.
The film’s first trailer was met with wide disdain, largely directed at its chief special effect: the big-eyed cyborg at the center of the story. Alita does look kind of weird (and actually, the size of her eyes relative to other cyborgs’ is never really explained), but you stop noticing it pretty quickly. The person acting under all that computer wizardry, Rosa Salazar, is a charming and forceful presence, so much so that you happily trek into the uncanny valley with her, won over near immediately to Alita’s cause.
The film is full of wondrous effects, just cartoony enough that we forgive its gleaming surreality, but not so gewgaw-ish that it all becomes cloying. Rodriguez sets his scene really effectively, detailing the intricacies of a grungy city in the 26th century, long after a war (involving the moon! And Mars!) has ravaged and stratified humanity. Things feel familiar but cleverly tweaked as Rodriguez zooms after Alita—who has some kind of cyborg amnesia—while she explores her surroundings. Iron City is full of bounty hunters, many of them organic-mecha hybrids with customized robotics connected to a central, human brain. They’re menacing, in all their clank and snarl, but there’s something cuddly about them too.
Alita learns to play a sport, Motorball, which is just Rollerball from Rollerball with souped-up technology. She learns the history of Iron City and the elite sky-metropolis above it. She meets a cute boy (Keean Johnson, cute); she finds a father-Frankenstein figure in Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido, and an antagonizer in Jackie Earle Haley’s hulking Grewishka, seemingly commanded by Vector, a Motorball promoter played by Mahershala Ali in the finest of Matrix Reloadedraiment. It’s a busy world, and yet each plot thread is carefully managed, resolved, and bound together as the film rollicks from one exciting action sequence or plot discovery to another. It’s downright winning, an invigorating ride in all its broadly empowering, chosen-one sentiment—which borders on hokiness but never quite lands in it.
Which makes the ending so sad. Alita: Battle Angel bravely, brazenly sets us up for a sequel that I don’t think we’ll ever get. Not if predictions about the movie’s box-office fortunes prove true, anyway. That’s something approaching a travesty. Alitaestablishes such thorough and engrossing stakes that I didn’t want it to end. Mostly because I knew I’d likely not see the next chapter, when the real villain (a celebrity cameo saved for the very end of the movie) emerges from the shadows and the larger mythological arc of the franchise takes shape. I’m hungry for that new saga, for eye-popping escapism that isn’t about Infinity Stones or the Force, though is still shaped by the same reliable tropes. I wish more people wanted that too. (I can, of course, go read the manga.)
I guess all this stuff just looks too goofy when it’s not coming from a trusted source. Even Groot and Rocket Raccoon, two of the wackier members of the Guardians of the Galaxy team, first arrived tethered to the Marvel brand. But Alita, with her expectant, Margaret Keane–esque gaze—and all her crazy robo-friends (and enemies)—is a bridge too far. Maybe the Avengers and the Jedi and a few others really have used up that much of our capacity for imagination. Which isn’t to say that everyone but me is a dumb sheep. Movies are expensive, and taking a risk on something new may just not be worth it when Captain Marvel is waiting in the wings. I’m lucky that I get to see things like Alita for work; once in a while they turn out to be good and worthwhile and crucially different. Alita made me realize how bored I’ve grown with so many tentpole films—while I do still like the Avengers and the Jedi plenty. Alita, though—so odd and nimble and immersive—generously offers up an engrossing alternative. If only we weren’t about to swat that nice thing away, yet again.