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December 08, 2017 at 02:44 PM EST

The first trailer for Alita: Battle Angel is here — along with an exclusive interview with director Robert Rodriguez.

More than a decade ago, James Cameron had two wildly ambitious sci-fi scripts he was considering for his next project. One was about giant blue aliens threatened by human invaders on a planet named Pandora. The other was his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 1990 Japanese manga classic Battle Angel Alita, about a robot girl salvaged from a scrapyard who turns out to have some rather special abilities.

As we all know, Cameron opted to make the former, Avatar, which became the highest-grossing movie of all time. But his Alita script was something he always meant to eventually make. As Cameron began ramping up plans to make four Avatar sequels, he showed his lengthy 186-page screenplay along with a whopping 600 pages of notes to auteur director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Desperado), who took a pass at trying to edit the draft into a shooting script. Cameron was hugely impressed with the result — Rodriguez managed to retain everything Cameron loved about the story while making it tighter and more streamlined. He asked Rodriguez to direct the film, launching the seemingly unlikely partnership between two uniquely creative and independent-minded filmmakers.

“When I first Jim’s script, I didn’t know much about it,” Rodriguez tells EW. “I knew it was based on the manga. So I came in cold. When I read his script and saw the images that he had [made for it] it was arresting and completely captivating and I could identify with all the characters — Alita is someone who starts down in a trash dump and finds out that her true destiny is becoming something much greater than who she thought she was. And just having this huge spectacle-type world but with a story that can really connect — that’s what Jim does best. I was so happy to see all of that was in there, it was crafted with all the love and care with any of his other projects. It was a real dream to be able to take on the project in his place since he was going to be doing the Avatar movies.”

One thing that’s immediately striking about the trailer is its heady mix of live action with actors who are either partly or fully computer-animated. Alita is played by Rosa Salazar (The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) in a motion-capture suit, while other characters around her — such Alita’s mentor and father figure, Daisuke Ido (Christoph Waltz) — are not. Everything was shot on practical sets bringing to life the city of Scrapyard, which was constructed on Rodriguez’s studio lot in Austin, Texas.

“When I first saw the images Jim put together, it was really embracing the idea of bringing in a very manga character with the enlarged eyes — which we haven’t seen since Astroboy in the 30s and has never been cinematically photo-real,” Rodriguez says. “It seemed like an opportunity to get the look of a manga in a cinematic way, and to do that Alita would have to be completely CG, and it’s now possible to bring a photo-realistic person to life. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, we got some nice big windows to view — her eyes are extremely captivating and show everything that’s going on inside of her.”

Rodriguez frequently oversees the score for his films and sometimes composes them as well. For the trailer, he made a suitable choice with a surprising origin — the song is “Lullaby for a Solider” from FX’s Sons of Anarchy, as sung by actress Maggie Siff.

“I loved this song and thought it went so well with the movie,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a very heartfelt sound, and that, in particular, is what separates Jim’s movies in general and this movie in particular from other sci-fi films — the heart of the picture.”

Cameron originally outlined Alita as a trilogy of films, so there’s a chance the movie could be the start of a franchise. “We wanted to make this a self-contained story, so you’ll see a movie that’s very complete but it tunes up a world and a character that could go on and on,” Rodriguez says.

Alita: Battle Angel opens in theaters July 20, 2018.

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