The most striking thing about the 18 minutes of Alita: Battle Angel screened during San Diego Comic-Con is that for all its cutting edge special effects, the film feels like a vintage throwback to classical storytelling. Very much in keeping with James Cameron’s work on Avatar, where extravagant special effects were utilized to tell a very emotional and universal tale, what 20th Century Fox brought to the Comic-Con crowd was evocative of a more grandiose movie about coming of age—as a completely digital cyborg with really big eyes.
During a Q&A session after the 18-minute showcase of footage (plus the new Alita trailer), director Robert Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau discussed the desire to bring that anime-specific look to life while maintaining a heartbeat underneath the special effects.
“When I first saw Jim [Cameron’s] artwork that he did in 2005, it was that,” Rodriguez said of his title character’s digital countenance. “She had the large eyes, she was like a manga character brought to photo-real life. Which, you know, we’ve been seeing those kind of eyes since Astro Boy in the ‘30s, but never photo-real. And I thought, ‘Wow that’s such a brilliant idea.’ Even my daughter, she draws manga stuff all day long. [Now] they can see it come to life in a way they’ve never seen before. Photo-real, 3D, as if you can reach out and touch it.”
The result is footage that I can attest has an unusually visceral quality reminiscent of classic anime style (and characters), with Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido playing a sort of Geppetto to Alita’s Pinocchio. As portrayed by Rosa Salazar, Alita is a shy and kind young woman with an every girl nature, despite how vast her dark pools of irises are. This is a line carried throughout the movie, even if it’s hinted that she was originally a weapon (she is built from a cyborg core Ido discovers in a dump). Still, Rodriguez’s own fingerprints are on the footage screened, including in some of the kinetc action sequences. Without giving anything away, Alita has the abilities of a super-soldier fighter, which she cannot explain. But fight she does, including against a gigantic cyborg whose finger-claws extend into long chain-link weapons of death. Think Freddy Krueger meets Scorpion from Mortal Kombat.
During the presentation, the creator of the original 1990 Alita manga, Yukito Kishiro, appeared in a pre-recorded video message, saying that he has been pleased with this adaptation ever since first reading the screenplay by James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. (Cameron wrote an apparently “five-hour” version in 2005 that Rodriguez cut down and retailored to his own sensibility.)
During the presentation, Salazar and Keann Johnson, who plays her love interest Hugo in the film, also appeared to answer a few questions, and Salazar had some thoughtful considerations about playing a sensitive young woman while in motion gear that also turns her into a sci-fi hybrid of human and machine.
“I think that the challenging aspects really melt away, and it’s just a process like any other,” Salazar reflected. “So in the beginning, it’s all foreign, the suit, and the fans and the batteries that are on your body, and the helmet and the boom that comes out, which made some kissing scenes a little challenging… but it elevates the performance.” She added, “You’re otherworldly. You have this idea that you are even more capable than your physical body. Especially as we got to watch playback, we got to watch playback as Alita in 3D, which, I mean, elevates the performance right there. You see what you’re making in real-time.”
Read the Den of Geek SDCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine Here!
At the same time, Rodriguez admits they did not see the final Alita design until after principal photography has concluded, which is all the more remarkable given how much of the film is clearly carried by Salazar’s performance. This level of reliance on pushing cinematic technology forward is something both Cameron and Rodriguez celebrate, as they were among the earliest adopters of digital photography in the 2000s, which went on to replace actual 35mm celluloid as the dominant form. In fact, Rodriguez recalled one especially salient anecdote about the first time he met Cameron as Rodriguez was preparing to shoot his first American movie, Desperado (1995), just as Cameron had come off Terminator 2 and True Lies.
“I was such a fan and I was trying to impress [Cameron],” Rodriguez mused. “And I said, ‘Hey, I just took a three-day Steadicam course, because I’m going to operate Steadicam myself on Desperado.’ I was thinking that might impress Jim, because he’s so hands-on. And he said, ‘I bought a Steadicam but not to operate it. I’m going to take it apart and design a better one.’ And that’s Jim, while us mortal filmmakers are learning to do a Steadicam, that’s our ambitious move, he’s designing a whole other system. That’s just always who he’s been.”
How that new system is designed by both Cameron and Rodriguez, on a movie more than 20 years in the making, will be fully revealed when Alita: Battle Angel opens on Dec. 21.