Why Alita: Battle Angel Took 16 Years to Come to the Screen

The director, star, and producer of Alita: Battle Angel discuss the movie’s long road to theaters.

It’s taken 16 years or more, but producers James Cameron and Jon Landau have finally brought Cameron’s longstanding dream project Alita: Battle Angel to the screen. Based on the manga Battle Angel Alita (a.k.a. Gunnm) first published in 1990, Alita was first announced by Cameron as a film in 2003 and has gone through a long development process before finally getting to the screen under the direction of Robert Rodriguez (Cameron co-wrote the script and produced, but was unable to direct because of his commitments to Avatar and its sequels).

“It is so rewarding when a project takes this long to come to fruition, and we are so thankful for the people that we got to collaborate with on this,” says Landau. “Because filmmaking is a collaborative art form, and to be able to share this creation that came all together today, with the technology we have and the in-cinema big screen experience, and the actress driving the heart of the movie…it fulfilled every dream we had.”

Alita tells the story of the title cyborg, who is literally left on a trash heap in the far future dystopian metropolis known as Iron City. Her remains are discovered by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who rebuilds her body, reactivates her human brain and christens her Alita after his deceased daughter. Her memories inaccessible, Alita learns that she does possess the strength and fighting skills to become a Hunter-Warrior who tracks rogue cyborgs — which puts her on the radar of the sinister Vector (Mahershala Ali) and the monstrous cyborgs in his employ.

“I like how emotional she is, I like how multi-dimensional she is, she’s dynamic in a way that’s a true representation of how women really are,” says Rosa Salazar about the role, which utilized extensive CG and motion capture to transform the actress into a faithful rendition of the cyborg. “To me it seems realistic that she has so many levels, and really had so much to give. I think young women should take away the fact that within all of them, there is a hero…(but) more than that, this is a relatable protagonist that anyone can get behind, that anyone can take that message away from.”

For Rodriguez, the director best known for the scrappy independent spirit and self-contained jack-of-all-trades esthetic that has guided all his films from his $7,000 debut, El Mariachi, to his noirish Sin City comics adaptations, bringing Alita to the screen as Cameron first envisioned it was a brand new challenge for him.

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“I’ve always wanted to try and make something at the level that he does,” says the Texas-based filmmaker. “He and I started very much the same way: real do-it-yourselfers, do every job. His movies just got bigger and bigger and more visionary and cutting edge. I’ve always tried to be cutting edge in the work I did, but not at the same scale.” He adds that creating a cinematic world with the scope of Alita elevated his game: “I had to change how I work in order to make something that’s that grounded and that real, and not as whimsical as I normally do.”

Alita: Battle Angel, which also stars Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Rodriguez, Keean Johnson and Eiza Gonzalez, is in theaters now.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye