James Cameron on Alita: Battle Angel, the Avatar sequels and why tech's got him paranoid

Before we talk about Alita: Battle Angel, can you give us a sneaky update on how the Avatar sequels and the Terminator reboot are going?

Sure. Well, where we are with Avatar 2, 3, 4 and 5 is we've done all the performance capture on two and three and part of four and we'll do the live action starting in May in New Zealand for about four months. The live action is a relatively small part of the films overall, but there are several live action characters that go through a lot of the CG scenes so it's about integrating the live characters into the CG scenes. Kind of the opposite of Alita where we had a few CG characters mostly integrated into live action settings. We had the reverse issue on the Avatar films. I've got a couple of human characters integrated into the Na'vi rainforest, oceans, mountains, that sort of thing. We'll shoot that 3D, so everything is going to look spectacular. That sets the bar for the CG guys at WETA. I think the films are going to look amazing.


What is it about science fiction that grabs you?
I've loved science fiction since I was a kid and I don't know where that comes from. I read voraciously, and my taste was very specifically science fiction when I was in high school and college. I didn't read sorcery-type fantasy at all. To me, that was a big distinction and people tend to fall into one class or the other. I still love it, I might do the occasional film like True Lies or Titanic that's not science fiction, but I will always gravitate to it.
Now we've got the Avatar films and we've got the Terminator film, and we've got a cycle of three films in mind for that if we do well. There's always the big "if" in front of all of these and we've got Alita movies mapped out if we make some money. Technically speaking, all four of the sequels are greenlit, but clearly, in the real world, we would be taking some kind of an off-ramp I would think and won't be finishing four or five if they don't do well. Just to clarify because it's been said that four and five aren't greenlit, they are and we have been working on them.

Why did you decide to make Alita a computer-generated character? They don't always work...
In Avatar the characters were aliens so there was a bit of latitude there because they weren't human. We've improved it a lot. You can see from Alita that we're pretty much there in terms of being able to reproduce a human.
But she's never going to look completely human because she's not supposed to. The purpose of doing her CG is to preserve the look of the character the artist Yukito Kishiro, who created the whole Manga series, created. He created her with these enormous eyes, very tiny mouth and heart-shaped face. Setting aside the issue of her body, which is clearly a synthetic machine body which had to be done CG, we did her face CG to preserve the character as he imagined it. It's never really stated in the film, but why does she have such big, innocent appealing eyes? It's an expression of her character. But why? It turns out that she's an infiltrator sent to Earth on a mission to destroy. So you make her look innocent, like a little doll, so she doesn't seem threatening. That was the original rationale to find her appearance. She's still digging down into her past even as the film ends and that will continue across subsequent films, again if we continue and get that opportunity, we'll find out a lot more about her back story.

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The film's set in the future, where do you see humanity in 50 to 150 years?
It's a really interesting question, I mean, we don't deal much with AI in this film, but all these cyborgs have human lives, human organic brains, inside a machine body. I think we'll see more of that. Eventually, they'll crack the code of being able to get signals from the spinal cord or brain directly into a prosthetic body, giving people who are paralysed, a paraplegic or a quadriplegic the ability to have mobility again with the advances in robotics. They've got a cheetah that runs at 30 miles an hour (about 50km/h) and robots that can climb steps, run around, go in the snow, all of those things. The question is, when do people start doing it by choice? People that are healthy, maybe want to have augmentation to move faster.
The bigger issue in front of us is artificial intelligence and the potential threat of an artificial super intelligence emerging. Personally, I think it's already happened. The world doesn't make any damn sense right now unless you assume that there's somebody, somewhere, controlling everything for their own amusement. That's just my paranoid perspective. If it's really a machine super intelligence, why would it do something dumb like let us know it's actually in charge?
One of the themes in Alita is that we're merging with our technology. We express ourselves through technology, it's a manifestation of our consciousness. We're merging with it, merging with our phones, tablets and our devices. We live differently to how we did 10, 20 years ago. We're going to continue to change and evolve socially as our machines develop.

What about film? Where's that headed?
I keep pushing towards better experiences in the cinema because it's going to be cannibalised by the sea of streaming and availability of content. Maybe I'm a dinosaur, but it's really, really important to me to keep the cinema experience alive. To me, it's a different contract. When I'm streaming I'm watching something from a streaming service and I'm in charge; I can pause, walk out, order pizza, do whatever I want. When you're in a movie theatre it takes charge of you, it takes over your reality and that creates a greater impact. The types of films I want to see and want to make, it's especially important to have that contract with the experience.
I don't think all entertainment is created equal and people seek out immersive and consuming experiences. When people see material on Alita or hear about it, they'll go, "oh, that's probably one I should see in a theatre". Those are the films that I want to make.
Yet the new Avatar film relies less on spectacle and more on emotion. That's our challenge as film-makers to constantly up that game. Beyond that, I couldn't tell you what's going to happen. The whole thing might be a cinematic experience for a few diehard fans. But everybody has constantly reported the demise of cinema since I started in movies in the 80s. First TV was going to do it, then VHS was going to do it and LaserDisc and you name it, everything has pronounced the death of the movie industry. And here we are with one of our biggest years in history last year.

What was it about Alita that made you want to adapt the Japanese manga?
I was attracted to this character 20 years ago and licensed the material because I thought she was amazing. I don't think she's necessarily a future role model for women, but someone who just seizes control of their identity and stands up for what they believe in. She stands up to a big bad guy, a presence of evil and where did that come from? It's coming from somewhere deep inside her, she doesn't even know where it's coming from, it's just who she is. I saw her as someone that women in an audience could relate to and feel empowered by. My daughter at the time I purchased the rights was 7 or 8 years old and having done Titanic I was thinking a lot about the angst of a teenager or young woman in a male-dominated society, thinking about what her life was going to be like. I wanted to make something for her. She's now 26 and she loves the movie, actually, her quote was, "I f***ing love this movie". But she never forgets to remind me that I should have made it in the time period where it would have done her damned good. Fortunately, I have a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old daughter, so it will be something for them.

With such a personal connection to the source material why did you decide to hand the director's chair to Robert Rodriguez?
Turning over my baby to Robert, that was an easy decision. I've known Robert for 25 years, we're friends and he's inspired me more times than I've inspired him. He speaks very humbly about making a Jim Cameron movie with this film, but it's a Robert Rodriguez film and let's not make any mistake there. I only went to the set one day for one hour and that was just to dispel the rumours that I wasn't really on the movie at all. It's his film.

LOWDOWN:
Who: James Cameron
What: Alita: Battle Angel
When: General release next Thursday, sneak previews in selected cinemas this weekend.