Did you cringe when you watched the first trailer for Alita: Battle Angel? You’re not the only one. Since it dropped, people have been talking about a particular artistic decision made by the creative team behind the movie: Alita’s distractingly large anime eyes.
Director Robert Rodriguez talked to Empire and offered up some thoughts on the decision, which wasn’t entirely his:
“It was always Jim’s intention to create a photorealistic version of the manga eyes that we’re so accustomed to seeing,” Rodriguez said. “We really wanted to honor the 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!”
Even people who don’t watch anime know it for its stylized faces and especially eyes. Eye big enough to serve dinner off of and mouths too small to fit food into. It seems pretty clear from the outset that Cameron’s primary goal here isn’t to show us more emotions, but rather to make sure we don’t forget we’re watching an anime adaptation.
Instead of pushing the emotional delivery of the character, though, it does exactly the opposite. The eyes are so distracting right away that they’re off-putting. It’s the very definition of the uncanny valley. Anime eyes in anime and manga look right because the whole art style is designed around it. Different artists have different takes on how big eyes should be, and work in different levels of photorealism, but they’re always using a drawn image to try to convey emotion quickly and simply.
We know what human emotions look like – anime eyes don’t inherently add anything to that on their own, they were made to serve a purpose in their own medium.
Here, in a live-action context, they look out of place. Even with the in-lore explanation that it’s because she’s a robot, those of us watching know it’s to make it look like anime.
Maybe Rodriguez and Cameron can make it work. Maybe I’m way wrong. But right now, it looks like a couple of amateur anime fans taking all the wrong things from the source. Alita: Battle Angel gets its first look in theaters on July 20, 2018.