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Front Page - Friday, February 22, 2019

Critic's Corner: The devil is in the dialogue of beautiful ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

“Alita: Battle Angel” is a treat for the eyes but hard on the ears.

I can’t recall another movie that serves up a more sumptuous visual feast. Set on Earth 500-plus years in the future, the film takes place within a massive metropolis populated by bizarre hybrids of human flesh and twisted machinery. The city itself is a crumbling, apocalyptic wonder that’s both hideous and beautiful.

Emerging from this grimy wasteland is an unwitting hero – a young female cyborg named Alita who’s easily the most realistic computer-animated being in a film to date. Sitting atop her lithe artificial body is a synthetic head that looks utterly human except for a pair of unnaturally large eyes that soak in the world around her with the unblemished wonder of a newborn.

Alita’s oversized eyes are a residue of the source material – a manga titled “Alita: Battle Angel.” Manga are Japanese comic books and graphic novels aimed at both adults and children. The characters in these publications often have large eyes. I didn’t research why, but I’m sure the internet has the answer if you’re more curious than me.

The story serves as a journey of discovery for Alita, who has a human brain but no memories. After a cyborg doctor named Dyson Ido discovers her head in a colossal trash heap in the center of the city, attaches it to a body and reactivates her, she’s gradually drawn into a conflict that reveals who she is and unlocks her devastating combat skills.

All of this would be thrilling if it weren’t for two things: The film’s writers must have pulled the screenplay out of the same pile of trash where Ido found Alita, and the dialogue is painfully bad.

The “Alita” movie has been a passion project of filmmaker James Cameron (director of “Terminator,” “Titanic” and “Avatar”) for many years. And his love for the source material is evident in the way he, along with co-writer Laeta Kalogridis (“Shutter Island”) and director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City” and “Spy Kids”), skillfully fashioned the world in which the film takes place. When it comes to world building, Cameron is a master architect.

But Cameron came up short when he penned the script. Instead of crafting a story with a strong through line, he seemingly picked his favorite bits from the manga and strung them together into a loosely structured screenplay.

As a result, the story jumps illogically from scene to scene, with characters often doing things that make no sense. As Alita prepares to compete in her first game of Motorball (like roller derby, but with crazed cyborgs outfitted with wildly imaginative weaponry), for example, she learns her opponents intend to kill her. Instead of bailing, which would have made sense at the time, she knuckles down and participates.

For me, the most jarring leap sees Alita progress too quickly from a wide-eyed innocent girl who loves oranges to a trash-talking cyberchick who kicks everyone’s ass in a bar fight. The shift is so abrupt, it’s like someone changed the channel from a PBS children’s special to HBO’s “Westworld.”

Worse, the movie ends before Alita reaches her ultimate destination – a floating city where the rich and elite live in luxury and excess. This left me feeling unsatisfied when the credits rolled, as though the filmmakers saved the third act for a sequel.

But the worst aspect of the screenplay is – far and away – the dialogue. Written with the skill of an adolescent creating fan fiction based on their favorite comic book, the script called for the actors to say things like, “She humiliated you severely,” “You’re the most human person I know” and other phrases that had me constantly editing the dialogue in my head.

“Alita” reportedly cost $200 million to make. How much more would it have cost to hire a third writer to smooth out the awkward lines and bad grammar? More to the point, how does a script this bad getting a passing grade for a $200 million movie?

“Alita” has other problems. Keean Johnson was miscast – severely – as Alita’s love interest, not because he’s a bad actor but because he’s too much of a pretty boy for the role, which should have called for an actor with more of an edge. Also, Alita’s mouth is a little stiff when she’s speaking, but that’s the only demerit the film’s animators earn.

These issues are a constant distraction while watching “Alita.” But I also found myself eager to see the next wave of visuals wonders and loved the insanely choregraphed action scenes.

Still, as much as I want to applaud “Alita” for its artistry and technical wizardry, a movie is a composite of many elements, and Cameron’s passion project falls short in too many critical categories to be considered good.