ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL producer and prime mover James Cameron is no stranger to cyberpunk, the subset of science fiction that imagines bleak futures dominated by digital technology. Cameron has created some of the best cyberpunk movies of all time, in TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY.
At the same time, the storied filmmaker has created some of the most well-defined female heroes to battle on the big screen. For Cameron, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was a labor of love. Here’s how that love is refreshing the cyberpunk genre.
Building a New Kind of Hero
James Cameron first came across Yukito Kishiro’s manga graphic novel, “Battle Angel Alita,” 20 years ago, when his daughter was just 7 years old. In “Alita,” a character which in some ways is more machine than human, he saw a hero his daughter could emulate.
“Alita is a moral character in a very immoral and dark world,” he explained in an interview with THR. “In this world of the future, everyone is compromised. Her father figure is compromised. Almost everyone is compromised or has sold out or made their deal with the devil … except for her, and she won’t do it.”
Worlds Gone Dark
In cyberpunk, we find worlds in which technological advances have created rampant inequality. The best cyberpunk stories are set in dystopian cities, where skyscrapers coexist with shantytowns, as though the slums have just over spilled.
These stories see human progress as a virus infecting the world. Most people live in overcrowded, filthy streets, while the rich live in the lap of luxury. That distinction is signposted clearly in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, with the wealthy literally living in a city, Zalem, that hovers over the slums. None of which sounds uplifting, until you insert a hero like Alita — someone who might bridge the two societies — into that scenario. Her vitality suggests that even though reliance on technology has twisted society, tech might also be able to set things right.
An Unlikely Partnership
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is the result of a unique partnership between James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. The famously obsessive Cameron bought the rights to the story, wrote a heavily annotated 200-page script, and created countless sketches envisioning the world he wanted to build for the big screen. But he got caught up in the success of the AVATAR franchise. Cameron found himself working on AVATAR sequels, unable to return to ALITA.
That’s when his old friend, Robert Rodriguez — a seat-of-the-pants filmmaker known for building his own studio in Austin, Texas — happened by. He asked how ALITA was going. The next thing Rodriguez knew, he was offered the chance to direct. Appropriately for a film populated by machine-human hybrids, the finished product is a fusion of two distinct artistic minds. “They speak the same language,” star Rosa Salazar told The Independent. “They really complemented one another.”
A Light in the Darkness
Rosa Salazar is the star of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. As the amnesiac cyborg Alita, she opens her eyes in a broken world that she knows nothing about. Christoph Waltz plays Dr. Dyson Ido, who finds Alita and desperately tries to keep her safe from harm. As Alita uncovers the truth of her own identity, she’s almost like a teenager who grows up too fast. Her spark of optimism never dims, however. When Alita comes to the attention of the deadly forces who run her city, she realizes she can offer hope to all of her friends.
The film explores the city through Alita’s eyes. As a result, it reveals beauty in the most unexpected places. “Everyone else might think this place is a dump and dream about Zalem,” Rodriguez explained to Empire, “but she sees the beauty in it, and that’s why the audience is presented it in that way.”
Vision of a New World
That optimism makes ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL unique, especially in cyberpunk. Even as the awful aspects of this barren future begin to break through, Alita looks forward to a better society. Alita’s innocence collides with the harsh world around her, but she brings light into the darkness.
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL comes to AMC® theatres on February 13.