Back in 2005, the fanboy in Robert Rodriguez was curious about how James Cameron’s manga-inspired “Battle Angel” was progressing. When Cameron told him that he was solely committed to making “Avatar,” Rodriguez asked: “But what’s going to happen to ‘Battle Angel’?”
That’s when Cameron invited the indie director into his inner circle, and 10 years later, Rodriguez signed on to make “Alita: Battle Angel,” his first $200-million Hollywood sci-fi spectacle.
“I looked at an image of that doll body and large, manga eyes, and it made sense for Jim Cameron: strong female, cyborg warrior,” Rodriguez said. “That’s his world. But then I read the script, and I identified with so many elements of this universal story about a very unassuming girl, who gets dumped in this scrap yard, and grows to find out that she’s got great power and the ability to change the world.
“That’s the magic of what Jim does and he tells it in a way that can affect people all over the world. And I wanted to try and tell a story like that using the truth in spectacle, trying to make it more like his movie, which is based on science fact, instead of my movie, which is more whimsical. Then you can believe the fantasy.”
Like moviegoers who finally embraced the blue Na’vi once they saw them in “Avatar,” there’s nothing creepy about Alita, the badass warrior-turned revolutionary in the 26th century (performance-captured by Rosa Salazar). In fact, when she wakes up in a morning bathed in sunlight without any memory of her former existence, pieced together by the compassionate cyborg doctor played by Christoph Waltz, it’s hard to believe that she’s totally CG.
That’s because the wizards of Weta Digital have taken facial capture animation to the next level of believability with this humanoid character that’s anything but manga stoic. They’ve brought the distinctive nuances and physical imperfections of Salazar — her wrinkles, her stars — into Alita along with her impassioned performance.
It was quite a stylistic leap for Rodriguez, though, who was on the cutting edge of green screen, virtual production with Frank Miller’s “Sin City” back in 2005. “I feel more like an audience member on this than any other movie,” he said, “I hadn’t done this process before, so a lot of it’s just intuition. But I’m stunned at how the shots come in. It’s like dream imagery but photo-real, so you can see why Jim makes movies at that level now. And when Rosa walked in the room [for the audition], I knew she was the girl. She’s so expressive, and I knew the animators were going to have a ball bringing this to life with so much to work with.”
Like the “Planet of the Apes” sequels, Weta shot Salazar’s performance capture on location — in this case, a 90,000-square-foot set of the dystopian Iron City on the backlot of Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin. However, Weta implemented two lightweight HD head cams for the first time to capture greater detail and provide more information for reconstructing the face.
Weta also advanced its facial capture system by using two CG puppets (one for the actress and one for the character), re-targeting one onto the other to achieve closer unity. It took a year to work on the eyes alone and then another four months of refinement. The eyes actually contained more detail than all of Gollum, with Weta doing simulation of fibers for the first time taken from a baby’s eyes.
“Usually, I prefer lower budgets because the studios let you do what you want,” said Rodriguez. “But here, with the money, and full lights on and full sun, and photo-real, that means half the budget’s going right there. But I never could’ve done these ground-breaking effects without them and at that level with these artists, who have such a high bar for their artistry.”
But Cameron made it an easier transition for Rodriguez. The script merely required “editing,” and even Cameron’s vision for Iron City already had a Panama City flavor, which played right into Rodriguez’s cultural wheelhouse. “The city was originally set in Kansas City in the manga, but Jim moved it to the equator because, in his scientific mind, he knew that was the only place a space elevator could work,” added Rodriguez. “And it was more colorful. Which I loved because it’s so different than any other movie. So it felt so strange to build this city that looks just like the first two floors from the town in ‘El Mariachi,’ more than 25 years later, only on a much bigger budget and scale. The futuristic elements got added digitally above it.”
Still, Rodriguez had to get accustomed to the Weta way and not screw up Cameron’s vision. “It was odd at first, shooting a movie without knowing what my lead actress was going to look like,” he said. “We didn’t have a final look for her yet. By the end, I realized it’s just like Rosa. Some of the proportions are different, but her performance and light comes through so much. I always had my leading lady there.”
And he always had Cameron to turn to for advice. “He can see over the hill, and if you can’t see it yet, it’s not ’cause you’re wrong, but you have to go further until you see it too,” Rodriguez said. “So if you’re gonna follow somebody, follow that guy. It’s like that first image of the doll girl with the large eyes. Shit, if he’s going to make it work, then I need to make it work.”
Whether the movie works will be judged by audiences; so far critics are mixed (Metascore: 57) and at this point, the movie conceived by Cameron in the late 90s arrives years after a series of similar dystopian futures, from “Wall-E” and “District 9” to “Maze Runner” and “Hunger Games.”
Box Office: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Struggles Heading Into Crowded Holiday Weekend
It could be anybody’s game this weekend at the domestic box office.
A trio of new releases — Fox’s “Alita: Battle Angel,” Universal’s “Happy Death Day 2U,” and Warner Bros. and New Line’s “Isn’t It Romantic” — will be vying for box office glory. All three are getting a head start on a busy holiday frame, with each expecting a debut in the low-$20 millions over the long Presidents Day weekend. Unless one of the newcomers becomes a surprise hit, it’ll be a close race for the top prize.
Fox’s sci-fi adventure “Alita: Battle Angel” has the most to gain, or lose, this weekend. The PG-13 cyberpunk action film is opening on Thursday and should earn $22 million over the weekend and $30 million during its first five days of release. That would be a respectable start for many films, but it’s disastrous for “Alita,” a CGI spectacle with a price tag upward of $170 million. The studio seemingly spared no expenses for producer James Cameron’s lavish take on a manga series, but reviews were mixed. Variety’s Guy Lodge praised the special effects, but said the film is “weighed down by a protracted, soul-challenged Frankenstory that short-circuits every time it gets moving.” It carries a mediocre 59% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Fox originally planned to debut the movie in December, but opted to avoid competition from a Christmas pileup that included the likes of “Aquaman,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” and “Bumblebee.” That was probably a smart move, considering just before “Alita” was supposed to open, another sci-fi epic, Universal’s “Mortal Engines,” flopped in spectacular fashion, while the Atlantean king, magical nanny, and tricked out Volkswagen Beetle all stuck the landing at the domestic box office. The studio is hoping “Alita’s” new release will be more hospitable. The holiday could help as it is targeted to younger audiences, who will be out of school over the long weekend.
Rosa Salazar stars as the titular heroine who attempts to uncover her mysterious past, while Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali round out the supporting cast. Even if “Alita” doesn’t become a breakout hit in North America, foreign markets could prove to be the cyborg’s saving grace. The movie had a solid start overseas last weekend, where it earned $32 million from 11 international territories. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, “Alita: Battle Angel” is based on a popular Japanese manga, so it’s no surprise the film is resonating in Asia. It launched in South Korea with $10.9 million and Taiwan with $4.7 million. The movie hits all major overseas markets, aside from Japan and China, this weekend.
For those looking to get in on the Valentine’s Day spirit, Universal and Blumhouse are releasing the slasher film “Happy Death Day 2U” on 3,000 screens this Wednesday. The sequel to 2017’s “Happy Death Day” is expected to earn $20 million during the weekend and $30 million over its first six days of release. That would be a healthy bow for the low-budget horror pic, but it’s down slightly from the first film, which generated $26 million and went on to pocket $125 million worldwide. Blumhouse spent more to make the sequel compared to the original, but its $9 million price tag is a fraction of the cost of “Alita: Battle Angel.”
The follow-up reunites Jessica Rothe and director Christopher Landon with horror maven Jason Blum. Rothe’s character once again finds herself reliving the same day on a loop after being murdered by a masked killer. This time around, her friends are also targets.
Warner Bros. and New Line are also joining the fun on Wednesday, taking its satirical flick “Isn’t It Romantic” starring Rebel Wilson and Liam Hemsworth to 3,700 locations. The romantic comedy about a woman (Wilson) whose life begins to play out like a romantic comedy (a PG-13 one at that, to make matters worse) after getting hit in the head, is expected to make $14 million over the three-day frame and $22 million during the long weekend. Todd Strauss-Schulson directed the movie, which also features Adam DeVine and Priyanka Chopra.
Among holdovers, last weekend’s champ “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” is hoping to pick up steam among the family crowd over the holiday frame. The animated sequel fell short of expectations, earning $34 million during its first three days of release. It could add another $25 million to $20 million in its second week of release, if it sees a similar decline to past installments in the “Lego” franchise.
On the specialty front, MGM is releasing “Fighting With My Family” in four locations. The biographical sports drama based on a WWE documentary will expand nationwide next weekend. Directed by Stephen Merchant, it follows the rise of the British professional wrestler Paige (Florence Pugh). Dwayne Johnson executive produced and also appears in the movie.
So far, the box office has struggled to match 2018’s record year. After seeing more than a month straight of declining ticket sales, the exhibition industry is in need of a major boost. While this weekend won’t hold a candle to the same frame last year that saw Marvel’s “Black Panther” shatter records, Hollywood is instead counting on a handful of titles to entice moviegoers and inject a little life back into theaters.
“If variety is the spice of life, then hopefully a diverse selection of movies will ignite some sort of box office spark from audiences,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a media analyst with Comscore. “Comps to last year will be naturally tough since the juggernaut that was ‘Black Panther’ set the box office world on fire with its monumental debut.”