Alita Could Have Been A Hit (But James Cameron Chose Avatar Instead)

Alita Battle Angel and Avatar

After 20 years of development, Alita: Battle Angel is finally ready to hit the big screen, but could the movie have been more successful if James Cameron directed as originally planned instead of Avatar? Alita is based on the cult manga Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, and tells the story of a female cyborg found in the scrap heap of a post-apocalyptic world. She is rebuilt by a kindly doctor but as her memory starts to return, she discovers more about her dark past. Cameron was introduced to Battle Angel by friend Guillermo del Toro and quickly fell in love with it, from the fleshed out, futuristic world of Iron City to the title character herself.

Cameron announced plans to adapt Alita: Battle Angel in the early-2000s, but while it would be mentioned in passing over the years, his focus on other projects saw it gradually slip into development hell. The Avatar sequels now mean Cameron’s directorial plate will be full until at least 2025, so it seemed Alita would never get made. Luckily for fans, Robert Rodriguez asked about the status of the project, giving Cameron the idea to pass the adaptation over to him. Rodriguez took the original script – and a reported 600 pages of notes – and condensed it into a shootable screenplay.

Related: Alita: Battle Angel's Most Complicated Characters & VFX Sequences

Fans of James Cameron will know Alita and Avatar are projects that were developed side by side, and for a long time, it was neck and neck between which one Cameron would opt for. Avatar ultimately won that race, but while Alita still has James Cameron’s fingerprints over it, it's a Robert Rodriguez movie at the end of the day. Let’s take a look back at the long development process on Alita: Battle Angel and imagine how it may have turned out had James Cameron directed it.

Avatar And Alita Were Born At The Same Time

James Cameron Avatar

James Cameron has never been a hired gun or a journeyman as a filmmaker; when he develops a project, he’s deeply involved in all of it, from the writing to the production design. He’s also something of a cinematic engineer, which is why he tends to push new advancements in technology whenever he’s making a new movie, be it the CGI water tendril in The Abyss or the 3D seen in Avatar. One challenge that fascinated him was creating photorealistic CG characters, so when he first sat down to pen Avatar in 1994, that was one milestone he wanted to reach.

Avatar was originally going to be the first movie Cameron tackled after the juggernaut that was Titanic, with a release date set for 1999. The filmmaker later decided against this, feeling the technology hadn’t caught up with his vision yet. He also started developing Alita: Battle Angel around 1999 and later confirmed plans to make a movie out of it. Just like Avatar, plans for Alita would change regularly, with Cameron once planning to adapt it around the time he was working on the thematically similar TV series Dark Angel, starring Jessica Alba. Both Alita and Avatar would occasionally blip on the radar screens of genre fans during the early 2000s only to go quiet again for long periods.

Related: Avatar 2: Every Update You Need To Know

Both projects also share a lot of themes regularly found in Cameron’s work, from a strong female lead, a concern with ecology, a cyberpunk aesthetic (more so in Alita’s case) and even a star-crossed love story. When Cameron finally settled on Avatar as his next movie, there were initial plans to develop Alita around the same time since they would have shared similar technology. Again, Cameron's focus on finishing Avatar and then getting distracted on other projects in the aftermath left Alita sitting on his "To Do" pile.

Alita 2019 Is What James Cameron Always Planned To Make

Rosa Salazar with eye paint in Alita: Battle An el

It should be noted Alita: Battle Angel is still the story Cameron set out to tell all those years ago. The movie is a faithful adaption of the first two volumes of the manga and the OVA animes, with the futuristic sport Motorball imported from later volumes. That’s not to say Cameron acted as ghost director on the movie though because once he handed it over, it became Robert Rodriguez project. Rodriguez’s goofy sense of humor and kinetic action style are plain to see in the finished product, alongside his eye for cool visuals.

Where Cameron’s influence is very visible is in the tech that went into making Alita, and the amount of world building. Iron City feels like a real, tangible place with a backstory that goes largely unspoken. The subtext of Alita being a wide-eyed innocent is made all too clear with the character’s big, manga-inspired eyes, with the same performance capture tech that went into Avatar being put to work again. The character herself shares a lineage with Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley or even Titanic’s Rose, who are all characters who have to overcome various fears and traumas to embrace their destiny.

Cameron's Alita would have been different, sure, but the fundamental building blocks remain in the finished product, which make it interesting that, while Avatar is still the biggest movie of all time, Battle Angel is cruising to be a box office bomb.

Why James Cameron Chose Avatar Over Alita

Avatar Zoe Saldana And Sam Worthington

The creation of CGI characters like Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings and the title character in Peter Jackson's King Kong convinced Cameron in 2005 the time was right to develop Avatar. After completing tests with 3D cameras, Cameron opted for the more personal Avatar over Alita but planned to dive right into Battle Angel shortly afterwards using the same advancements. Of course, making Avatar was an all-consuming process, with the filmmaker understandably taking another break from directing in the aftermath. It didn’t hurt that Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time upon release and Cameron later confirmed his intention to develop a trilogy.

Developing the Avatar sequels would itself become a full-time job, and the plan for two sequels ballooned into four. The writing process took so long Avatar 2’s originally announced release date was pushed back from 2018 to 2020. The sequels are being developed as standalone stories that will be complete in themselves, but while a green light for Avatar 4 & 5 is dependent on the success of the first two sequels, it became clear Cameron wouldn't be available to make Alita for a long time to come. That’s when the project was handed to Rodriguez, with Cameron acting as producer.

Page 2 of 2: What If Cameron Chose Alita Instead Of Avatar?

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Key Release Dates
  • Alita Battle Angel (2019) release date: Feb 14, 2019
  • Avatar 2 (2021) release date: Dec 17, 2021
  • Avatar 3 (2023) release date: Dec 22, 2023
  • Avatar 4 (2025) release date: Dec 19, 2025
  • Avatar 5 (2027) release date: Dec 17, 2027
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