Moviemaking juggernaut James Cameron doesn’t do boring. Loud? Sure. Visually epic? Definitely. Groundbreaking? Invariably. But boring? Never. This enervating science-fiction blockbuster that he co-wrote and produced for director Robert Rodriguez (Rodriguez also co-writes, along with ‘Shutter Island’ scribe Laeta Kalogridis), however, comes pretty darn close. Only its often bravura visuals and some sparky cyberpunk races keep it engaging, until its umpteen story threads and endless mythology-meets-tech-porn jargon finally pound the interest out of you.
Adapted from Yukito Kishiro’s manga comic and set in 2563 in a post-apocalyptic metropolis called Iron City, the project has simmered away on one of Cameron’s many back-burners for nearly two decades. It feels like bad timing that it’s finally arrived just as dystopian YA sci-fis are starting to feel thoroughly played out. If you’ve seen ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Divergent’, ‘Mortal Engines’ or the similarly manga-inspired ‘Ghost in the Shell’, there’s nothing to surprise you in this story of Alita, a cyborg girl (Rosa Salazar, given an eerie CG makeover and cartoon eyes) reconnecting with her warrior past. Christoph Waltz – who can sleepwalk through stuff like this, and often seems to – plays a kindly scientist who takes her on as his personal Pinocchio. Meanwhile, a mysterious overlord called Nova rules this venal cityscape from a floating realm above.
Although the story plays out in predictable ways, Rodriguez handles the combat sequences well enough as Alita’s killer skill set ramps up. But the dialogue is exposition-heavy and lumpen – especially by Cameron’s lofty standards. With none of the usual killer pay-off lines or jokey moments, the more-than-solid supporting cast – including Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein and Jennifer Connelly – are stranded in earnestness. Ali and Skrein do what they can in generic bad roles, but the menace levels end up diluted by a surfeit of villains. It’s a rare thing to say about a Cameron project, but you come out feeling like you’ve seen it all before.