'Alita' director Robert Rodriguez on emulating legend James Cameron

Los Angeles (AFP) –


Before James Cameron turned "Avatar" into the highest-grossing movie in history, he was working on a new kind of cinematic heroine with the big-screen adaptation of manga series "Battle Angel Alita."

The legendary director behind "The Terminator," "Aliens" and "Titanic" -- the second biggest hit of all time -- had a whole franchise planned for Yukito Kishiro's graphic novels about a cyborg discovered on a garbage heap.

The runaway success of "Avatar" -- $2.8 billion in worldwide ticket receipts -- has led to a staggering four sequels being green-lit, however, so Cameron made the unprecedented decision to let go of his baby, entrusting his 600-page "Alita" script to his friend Robert Rodriguez.

"I totally bought into his version of it and I wanted to help him get it to the screen. I wanted, as a fan, to see that movie," Rodriguez, 49, told AFP at the recent CinemaCon industry convention in Las Vegas.

"So that was my approach to it, not to go and take it and turn it into something else, but help Jim finish what he had started out to make."

"Alita: Battle Angel" -- the title was flipped, in keeping with all of Cameron's films since the early 1980s beginning with a T or an A -- is set hundreds of years in the future.

The unconscious Alita is found in a scrapyard by Ido, a doctor who realizes that somewhere in her abandoned cyborg shell is the heart and soul of an extraordinary young woman.

- Oscar winners -

He tries to shield Alita from her mysterious past as the corrupt forces that run things come after her -- and she discovers she has unique fighting abilities.

Rosa Salazar, known for the "Divergent" and "Maze Runner" teen franchises, leads an all-star cast featuring Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Christoph Waltz -- all Oscar winners.

Rodriguez, who befriended Cameron a quarter century ago, rose to fame with the release of his widely acclaimed 1992 low-budget "El Mariachi," about a Mexican musician who takes up arms against a gang of outlaws.

This led to a diverse career that has included the seminal vampire thriller "From Dusk Till Dawn," the dark action film "Sin City" and the child-friendly "Spy Kids" franchise, as well as Mexican-set actioners "Machete" and "Desperado."

Rodriguez didn't so much rewrite Cameron's "Alita" script as edit it down to a manageable length, suggesting some additional photography and dialogue, and moving the action to South America.

"If I wrote (Cameron) a question he'd send back a whole very long, broken down, analyzed, easy-to-digest-and-learn-from answer," Rodriguez said.

"And he's very generous, very much a mentor and, at the same time, 'Make this your own, you know, Robert -- you make this your own. Here's what I think but make your own decision.'"

Cameron and long-time co-producer Jon Landau ("Titanic," "Avatar") haven't ruled out a franchise, but first the movie -- due out on December 21 -- will need to overcome some misgivings about the look of Alita.

- 'Uncanny valley' -

When an early trailer landed, some critics complained that the preternaturally large-eyed heroine -- an entirely computer-animated character superimposed on Salazar's motion-capture performance -- looked kind of creepy.

It is a reaction encapsulated by the "uncanny valley" -- the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost, but not quite, like real people elicit feelings of revulsion.

"Not being funny: I just don't like looking at Alita. Forget the uncanny valley, this is uncanny Marianas Trench," tweeted Scott Wampler of the Birth.Movies.Death pop culture website.

The precedents for big-budget, effects-saturated, manga-based blockbusters with female leads aren't particularly encouraging either.

"Ghost in the Shell," opened poorly in the US and sank without a trace amid scathing reviews and a backlash against the white Scarlett Johannson being handed the starring role.

But Rodriguez has always believed in Cameron's vision of a CGI cyborg that appears every bit as real -- in soul, if not in appearance -- as the young women who will see the movie.

"A lot of the time, manga-type material is unrelatable to an audience because it's just so far out, it's all spectacle and not enough emotion and human relatability," he said.

"And that's the opposite of what Jim does."