Five humanoid female robots like the star of ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

Jedd Jong

Alita: Battle Angel, the long-awaited adaptation of the manga Battle Angel Alita aka Gunnm, finally hits theatres this February. James Cameron of Titanic and Avatar fame laboured over this film through most of the 90s, eventually passing the position of director to Robert Rodriguez of Sin City and Spy Kids. That comes in handy because the title character is the computer-generated robot girl Alita.

Actress Rosa Salazar plays Alita via performance capture technology. The humanoid female robot is the latest in a long line of her own kind to have graced the big screen. A fixture of science fiction, the robot trope often explores the theme of man playing God. Robots in sci-fi movies have been ruthless killers, curious innocents, efficient seducers, and artificial beings who long to be human – sometimes a combination of these.

Dr Dyson Ido and Alita in Alita: Battle Angel. Photo credit: IMDB

Alita: Battle Angel is set in the 26th century. The kindly Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the discarded “core” of Alita and creates a homemade robot body to resurrect her. Alita gradually rediscovers her long-forgotten past as a high-tech artificial soldier who fought in a war 300 years ago. Alita also falls in love with a boy named Hugo (Kean Johnson), who introduces her to the motorball sport. As Alita braves the deadly world of professional motorball, she must also defeat the malevolent forces who want to track her down and kill her.

Alita: Battle Angel has elements of the Pinocchio story, with Dr Ido in the Gepetto role. The search for one’s humanity and a crisis of identity is a common feature in sci-fi tales involving robots. Alita’s design, controversial for the large manga-esque eyes, is a way of reminding viewers that she is almost human, but not quite.

Alita examines her new robot body in Alita: Battle Angel. Photo credit: IMDB

As with anything sci-fi, the definitions can be tricky: we’re including both androids (completely man-made robots) and cyborgs (beings with both mechanical and organic components) in this list. Feminine humanoid robots are sometimes called “gynoids”. Alita has a human brain, but everything else about her is manufactured.

Beyond Alita, here are five other female robots who’ve graced the big screen before her:

#1. Maria from Metropolis (1927)

Mara in Metropolis. Photo credit: IMDB

The sci-fi German expressionist drama Metropolis (1927) is credited as being one of the first films to prominently feature a robot. The film is set in the futuristic Metropolis, which is ruled by the tyrannical industrialist Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and his son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). Fredersen has commissioned the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a Maschinenmensch (machine-man) named Maria, who enforces Fredersen’s rule by keeping the working class in their place. Naturally, Maria’s creators soon find themselves unable to control her.

Metropolis combined fantastical imagery and visual effects with a commentary about social stratification. It explored the themes of industrialisation and mass production in the wake of the Weimar Republic and the First World War. Maria is an early version of the stock evil robot who enforces a government or corporation’s oppression of the masses. The character also embodies the conflict between programming and free will.

Actress Brigitte Helm behind the scenes of Metropolis. Photo credit: IMDB

Maria was played by actress Brigitte Helm and was designed by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. The original Maria costume is thought to have been destroyed after filming, but its exact fate remains unknown. Maria’s design has influenced everything from the look of Star Wars droid C-3PO to costumes worn by pop stars including Beyoncé, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga. Janelle Monae has been influenced by the concept of the Maschinenmensch, most evidently in her Metropolis: Suite I album.


#2. Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Photo credit: IMDB

Alita was bound to remind audiences of Ghost in the Shell, also a high-profile Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese property about a formidable female robot. The anime movie Ghost in the Shell (1995), directed by Mamoru Oshii, was the first adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga. The film was a landmark achievement in the medium of animation and kickstarted a successful multimedia franchise.

The central character of Ghost in the Shell is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg field commander of the law enforcement division Section 9. Like Alita, she has a human brain in a mechanical body – a “ghost” in the “shell”. The film’s heady themes include that of identity and autonomy in a society dominated by technology. On the surface, Ghost in the Shell looks like a slick sci-fi action anime movie, but in addition to its striking visuals, it also contains musings on the nature of consciousness and existence. Pretty deep stuff.

Major Mira Killian in Ghost in the Shell (2017). Photo credit: IMDB

Long before the controversial live-action remake starring Scarlett Johansson was released in 2017, Ghost in the Shell was already making waves in Hollywood. The Wachowski siblings used the film’s cyberpunk aesthetic as a main reference point for The Matrix, while James Cameron himself called the movie “a stunning work of speculative fiction.” The concept of transferring one’s consciousness into another body was explored by Cameron in Avatar.

#3. The T-X from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

The T-X in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Photo credit: IMDB

When one thinks “James Cameron” and “robots”, the Terminator series is what immediately comes to mind, even though Cameron only directed the first two films. The third instalment, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), was directed by Jonathan Mostow, without Cameron’s direct involvement.

The T-X’s liquid metal skin in action in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

For the first time in the franchise, a female Terminator plays a major role. The film’s antagonist is the T-X or the Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken). She is sent back in time to assassinate John Connor (Nick Stahl), facing off against the older T-800 Model 101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). This is the Terminator feared by other Terminators: she is designed to hunt and kill not just humans, but her own kind too. The T-X has a liquid metal covering over a metal endoskeleton, giving her the shape-shifting abilities of her predecessor, the T-1000. She can also form various weapons, including a flamethrower and pulse rifle. She has nanobots in her fingers that she can inject into computers and other machines, taking them over.

The role was a tough one to cast, with over 10,000 actresses considered before the producers found Kristanna Loken. Loken gained 6 kg of muscle, did weight and martial arts training, and studied with a mime coach to prepare for the role. “She definitely plays upon her feminine side to achieve her goals and get what she wants,” Loken said of the character. “I was doing things that basically weren’t humanly possible, and was trying to make it look effortless,” she said of how physically-demanding the role was. The short-lived TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles also featured a female Terminator named Cameron, who was one of the good guys this time. Perhaps the sixth Terminator movie, due this year, might feature another female Terminator.

#4. Nebula from the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Photo credit: IMDB

Moviegoers were first introduced to the alien cyborg assassin Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The adoptive sister of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula has held a grudge against Gamora because Gamora was the favoured daughter of their father Thanos (Josh Brolin).

There is a tragic story behind the character’s cybernetic implants: for each battle with Gamora that Nebula lost, Thanos would excise a piece of her and replace it with a mechanical component as punishment. We learn this and more about the relationship between the sisters in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). Nebula is a character who has benefitted from the serialised storytelling of the MCU, going from villain to hero as we learn more of her back-story. The character is speculated to play a large role in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame (2019).

Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo credit: IMDB

In the MCU, robot limbs are not unique to Nebula. In an interview with ScreenRant, Gillan was asked if the Winter Soldier or Nebula would win in an arm-wrestling match. Gillan naturally picked Nebula. “She’s the biggest sadist in the galaxy… I feel like I can handle this arm better than the actor who played Winter Soldier,” Gillan said, throwing some shade in the actor Sebastian Stan’s direction. This might make things a tiny bit awkward if Nebula and the Winter Soldier must team up in Endgame.

#5. Ava from Ex Machina (2015)

Ava in Ex Machina. Photo credit: IMDB

Science fiction movies aren’t always giant action-packed extravaganzas. Audiences have come to embrace smaller-scale sci-fi dramas that use the genre as a way of exploring philosophical and social themes. Ex Machina (Latin for “in the machine”) (2015) is one of the best recent examples of a film like this.

Ex Machina is about Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer for tech corporation Blue Book, who wins a week at the luxurious mansion of the Blue Book CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). While he is Nathan’s guest, Caleb discovers that Nathan is building an artificially-intelligent humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan has already built another robot named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Caleb finds himself in the middle of a peculiar test, caught between the intelligent but possibly-unhinged Nathan and the mysterious Ava.


Ex Machina is a lot more sophisticated than most films about robots, partially because of its basis in real research. Writer-director Alex Garland was inspired by the work of Murray Shanahan, the Professor of Cognitive Robotics at Imperial College London. Garland brought Shanahan on board as a scientific advisor.

Ava in Ex Machina. Photo credit: IMDB

The film’s literary inspirations include the French folk tale of Bluebeard, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At the centre of it all is Alicia Vikander’s mesmerising, impenetrable performance, which keeps us guessing just how human Ava is and how much she knows. There’s the underdog factor too: Ex Machina won the Best Visual Effects Oscar over much bigger films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian in 2016.

Alita strikes a pose in Alita: Battle Angel. Photo credit: IMDB

Alita could well join the ranks of iconic female robots in sci-fi films. There’s more to Alita than meets the (anime-style) eye. To learn the secrets behind this formidable warrior and to find out if she winds up embracing her humanity, watch Alita: Battle Angel, in theatres now.

Sources: IMDB, Empire, Robot Hall of Fame, Vox, Business Insider, LA Times, Terminator Wiki, IFC, Screen Rant, The Guardian


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