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Friend works toward Cameron's manga dream

By Frankie Taggart in Los Angeles | Updated: 2018-05-10 09:28
Director Robert Rodriguez doesn't so much rewrite James Cameron's Alita script as edit it down to a manageable length. [Photo/Agencies]

Before James Cameron turned Avatar into the highest-grossing movie in history, he was working on a new kind of cinematic heroine with the film adaptation of manga series Battle Angel Alita.

The director behind The Terminator, Aliens and Titanic, the second-biggest hit of all time, had a franchise planned for Yukito Kishiro's graphic novels about a cyborg discovered on a garbage heap.

The runaway success of Avatar - $2.8 billion in worldwide ticket receipts - has led to four sequels being green-lit, so Cameron decided to give his 600-page Alita script to friend Robert Rodriguez.

"I totally bought into his version of it and I wanted to help him get it to the screen. I wanted, as a fan, to see that movie," Rodriguez, 49, said at the recent CinemaCon industry convention in Las Vegas.

"So that was my approach to it, not to go and take it and turn it into something else, but help Jim finish what he had started out to make."

Alita: Battle Angel - the title was flipped, in keeping with all of Cameron's films since the early 1980s beginning with a T or an A - is set hundreds of years in the future.

The unconscious Alita is found in a scrapyard by Ido, a doctor who realizes that somewhere in her abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of an extraordinary young woman.

He tries to shield Alita from her mysterious past as the corrupt forces that run things come after her and she discovers she has unique fighting abilities.

Rosa Salazar, known for the Divergent and Maze Runner teen franchises, leads an all-star cast featuring Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Christoph Waltz, all Oscar winners.

Rodriguez, who befriended Cameron a quarter century ago, rose to fame with the release of his widely acclaimed 1992 low-budget El Mariachi, about a Mexican musician who takes up arms against a gang of outlaws.

This led to a diverse career that has included the seminal vampire thriller From Dusk Till Dawn, the dark action film Sin City and the child-friendly Spy Kids franchise, as well as Mexican-set actioners Machete and Desperado.

Rodriguez didn't so much rewrite Cameron's Alita script as edit it down to a manageable length, suggesting some additional photography and dialogue, and moving the action to South America.

"If I wrote (Cameron) a question he'd send back a whole very long, broken down, analyzed, easy-to-digest-and-learn-from answer," Rodriguez says.

"And he's very generous, very much a mentor and, at the same time, 'Make this your own, you know, Robert - you make this your own. Here's what I think but make your own decision'."

Cameron and longtime coproducer Jon Landau (Titanic, Avatar) haven't ruled out a franchise, but first the movie, due on Dec 21, will need to overcome misgivings about the look of Alita.

When an early trailer landed, some critics complained that the preternaturally large-eyed heroine, an entirely computer-animated character superimposed on Salazar's motion-capture performance, looked kind of creepy. It is a reaction encapsulated by the "uncanny valley", a hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost, but not quite, like real people elicit feelings of revulsion.

"Not being funny: I just don't like looking at Alita. Forget the uncanny valley, this is uncanny Marianas Trench," tweets Scott Wampler of the pop-culture website Birth. Movies. Death.

The precedents for bigbudget, effects-saturated, manga-based blockbusters with female leads aren't particularly encouraging either.

Ghost in the Shell opened poorly in the United States and sank without a trace amid scathing reviews and a backlash against the white Scarlett Johannson being handed the starring role.

But Rodriguez has always believed in Cameron's vision of a CGI cyborg that appears every bit as real in soul, if not in appearance, as the young women who will see the movie.

"A lot of the time, mangatype material is unrelatable to an audience because it's just so far out. It's all spectacle and not enough emotion," he says. "And that's the opposite of what Jim does."

Agence France-Presse

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