Alita: Battle Angel went to great lengths to get some aspects of Yukito Kishiro’s manga series correct on the big screen, including the way Rosa Salazar’s eyes were enhanced for the flick. However, other details were changed, including the setting of the story, and as it turns out there’s a reason Alita: Battle Angel got switched from Kansas City, Missouri to Panama City, Panama.
In fact, it’s a really cool reason. According to Director Robert Rodriguez, the change of locale had to do with the science behind the space elevator and the best location it would have worked. He said:
The original story was set in Kansas City, but Jim early on figured out that it should be set near an equator because that’s where scientifically a space elevator would work. I thought that was fantastic, so let’s do Panama City, which is a Latin country, and we’ve never seen that in a sci-fi film before. And with all the different cultures, it’s just naturally diverse, so the diversity was actually part of the original script.
Per Robert Rodriguez, it was James Cameron who figured out that Zalem and the Iron City would be better off set in a warm location near the equator rather than in a temperate one. Then Rodriguez decided Panama City would be the best place to build the 23rd century world, set several hundred years after a great war left the Earth in ruination.
With Avatar and even Titanic, James Cameron has had an avid interest in the scientific components of those properties. (Although he notably may have gotten the Titanic sinking wrong.) So, it’s not shocking to me that if he was working on a movie with a space elevator that he would have wanted to make sure the details were at least somewhat feasible.
In addition, although the story is based on a manga novel written in Japan, Robert Rodriguez also revealed to Complex that Jim’s vision was always “more of a melting pot,” meaning setting the story in a specific place wasn’t that important to the final vision of the film.
What was cool is that that’s what Jim latched onto when he first got the rights in 1999, is that it wasn’t something as Asian-specific as Ghost in The Shell or Akira, which are set in neo Tokyo. This is something that’s much more of a melting pot, it’s not set somewhere specifically Asian. It’s a cyborg girl in the lead, and even in the manga it’s set in one of the last standing cities left, so by nature there’s multiple languages being spoken, with people from all over the world could coming there, so it was always sort of a melting pot.
It took a long time for Alita: Battle Angel to come together. Robert Rodriguez previously revealed that James Cameron had approached him with the idea a long time ago, specifically back when he was working on Sin City, which was released back in 2005. That’s a long time for a project like this to gestate, but it also assumedly means that people like James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez had plenty of time to think about details like space elevators and temperature.