Yukito Kishiro's original 1990s manga series Battle Angel Alita (known as Gunnm in its original Japanese incarnation) was one of the first Japanese comics to make a major impression on generations of American fans. Long before the manga boom took over bookstores in America, fans followed rumors of an Alita film adaptation in the works from acclaimed director James Cameron.
Now, after decades of development, the Hollywood take on the story has arrived as Alita: Battle Angel, a new film directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Rosa Salazar in the title cyborg role, Keean Johnson as her human love interest, and an all-star cast of villains and mentors. CBR spoke with the trio above, as well as producer Jon Landau, who's been shepherding the project since Cameron optioned it for a film almost 20 years ago.
Rodriguez explained that his final version is a combination of Kishiro's original manga and Cameron's screen story. "It's an exciting mix of the two. Where as I was super faithful to the comic in Sin City, this is really taking the spirit of it and expanding it to something all audiences can see," he said.
The director also drew a line between his visual style and the challenge of adapting comics to screen. "I love interpreting drawings. I started as a cartoonist, and that's why Frank Miller and I got along so great. I love taking his images and just figuring out how you bring that to life and be very true to that," Rodriguez said, noting that he came at this project in a different way initially. "But my first exposure to Alita was actually not the manga. I read [James Cameron's] script first and saw his art. So I saw Jim's version of it before I went back to the comic. I knew he always wanted to develop it, which is why I never looked at the comic on purpose. I didn't want to spoil whatever movie he made. But I didn't realize it was going to take so long to make.
"I looked at [Kishiro's manga] and realized that I really do want to capture this. Jim's very true to the artist as well. But if he uses lines to convey speed, I know what that means. I want that image but in speed. So people who are fans of the graphic novel will totally see how faithful it is, but also how it's a movie story that can be told in film. Jim added a lot of nuance and character to it that makes it feel like a worldwide movie."
The long development period ended up being a blessing for the film in Landau's eyes, as he felt high technical level of mocap used to translate Salazar's performance to screen was what makes the final story connect. "I really believe that two years ago, three years ago, we could not have done the movie. We could not have got as compelling and emotive a character as Rosa gave us in her performance onto the big screen," he said.
The actress herself felt that now is the time for Alita's story to be told at this level. Salazar explained, "We can all relate to feeling insignificant and powerless to make any kind of difference. There are monsters on our television all day, everyday. And sometimes you feel like 'If I could only get them all our of here, I could really make a change.' It's cathartic to watch this character feel so insignificant and then go on this journey and empower herself and become someone who can make a change...it's very inspirational and aspirational."
Landau sees a political and cultural message in the movie that justifies its arrival in 2019. "Since you've read this way back when, you know the story is so timely," he said. "Alita's story – whether it's about #metoo or about the world and the ability to make a change and not live under the oppression of an authoritarian government – these themes are relevant to the world, but none more so than the relationship that Alita develops with Ido, her father, and with Hugo, a boy on the streets who comes to see people that he thought of as second-class citizens are someone he falls in love with."
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel stars Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor, and Eiza González.