If you ignore a particular detail in the Alita: Battle Angel trailer, it’s totally unmemorable. Just another sci-fi blockbuster with a cyborg lead. Unfortunately, that detail is impossible to ignore because it’s staring you right in the face.
We’re talking, of course, about Alita’s enlarged, anime-style eyes.
Those eyes were the only thing people talked about when the Alita trailer came out, and the consensus wasn’t great. While some fans pointed out that Alita’s a cyborg, the obvious reply is, well, “But why does she look like she’s from Frozen?” Then there’s the slightly creepy subtext of her appearance, which positions Alita as a vulnerable anime girl with big baby eyes, surrounded by realistic, non-CGI-animated men.
Thanks to an interview with Empire magazine, we now know the backstory for those eyes. Kind of. Director Robert Rodriguez defended the creative decision, saying:
“It was always [James Cameron’s] intention to create a photo-realistic version of the manga eyes that we’re so accustomed to seeing. We really wanted to honour that tradition and see that look standing next to any human character. To have the right person to emote behind it was really essential. Her origins are in the film and you understand why she looks that way. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, we have some pretty big windows. You can see a lot going on in there! When it gets to the emotional scenes it’s really uncanny and striking. And captivating!”
“Striking” is one word for it, yes. “Uncanny” seems a little more appropriate.
Obviously, Rodriguez wasn’t going to dunk on his own movie, but he also shifts the blame somewhat. James Cameron was originally going to direct the movie and he stayed on as producer when Rodriguez stepped in. So, in the grand tradition of Avatar‘s weirdly sexualized Na’vi design, we can thank the unique creative mind of James Cameron.
While we can’t judge Alita‘s overall quality until the film is out, this feels like the latest in a long, long line of mishaps for Hollywood anime adaptations. These movies are often criticized for whitewashing their lead roles, but this time around it’s like they found a new way to misinterpret the source material. “Anime eyes” aren’t meant to be representative art; they’re a stylistic choice. Alita’s photorealistic adaptation is the equivalent of doing a live-action Simpsons movie where the actors are painted bright yellow.
Even if there’s an in-universe explanation (for instance, that the person who built Alita was a huge weeaboo), those eyes are going to be very distracting.