It’s difficult to fully capture the internet in television and film in a way that does it justice. How can we explain the harm, the wonder, and the slight ridiculousness of it all without being too heavy-handed? We can explain the multiverse in a hundred different ways, but the expansive nature of the internet is hard to pinpoint.
That’s not for lack of trying, of course. Though we have films like Ready Player One and The Matrix, few projects attempt to explore the broader consequences of what it would be like to exist corporeally in cyberspace. Imagine a social media platform that allows your avatar to live in a seemingly limitless world. Would you use it? And if you did, what would you do with your avatar? The 2021 sci-fi epic Belle, streaming now on HBO Max, depicts just that.
In Belle, Suzu — and 5 billion other users, according to the movie’s cold open — see the virtual world of “U” as a chance at another life. But the app’s promise of “another you” turns out to be misleading.
U serves as a virtual playground for its users and Belle viewers alike in this breathtaking film written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda, the Academy Award-nominated director of Mirai. The movie earned a standing ovation at its 2021 Cannes Film Festival premiere, and already it’s left its mark on anime, influencing the recent One Piece Film: Red and is its own portrayal of a mysterious, technicolor pop star envisioning a new world through music.
Upon joining U, Suzu (Kylie McNeill), the film’s sensitive teenage protagonist, finds that she can sing again for the first time since the premature loss of her mother. She becomes an overnight sensation, even going as far as performing in a virtual stadium. The film seamlessly takes us through Suzu’s double life as it switches between her rural Japanese school and her online presence. Her 2.5 million followers have no idea they’ve become obsessed with a shy schoolgirl. Instead, they’re following Belle, Suzu’s princess-like avatar with an incredible voice. McNeill, a singer with no prior acting credits, voices Suzu well, but really shines through the movie’s uplifting soundtrack.
With the help of her caustic best friend Hiroka (Jessica DiCicco), Belle takes the internet by storm, but she soon learns she’s not the only one hiding behind her avatar when she meets the Dragon (Paul Castro Jr.), an infamous user known for his unmatchable fighting strength in U’s martial arts tournaments. The film soon switches gears to riff on Beauty and the Beast as Belle attempts to save the Dragon, but it never feels too contrived. The details are charming, and make sense for the characters and setting.
Belle uses extravagant visuals to depict cyberspace in a way that’s never been seen before. Her concerts in U include her swimming in diamond-encrusted waters with whales and floating through cyberspace in elaborate costumes, surrounded by her adoring fans. These spectacular scenes punctuate the movie’s thrilling soundtrack, creating the sense that this really is a futuristic world.
The movie also offers commentary on our relationship with social media. Users can only join U by allowing it to scan their biometric data and synchronize their cognitive functions with their avatars. Rather than diving too deep into why 5 billion users willingly handed over their most personal data, the movie leaves viewers to realize this isn’t much different from our relationships with platforms that are far less enjoyable than U. And then there’s the double-edged sword of having a big social media presence: Some people love you, some hate you, and some just wonder why everyone else cares so much about you.
Hosoda’s mastery of the genre shows here. The film feels deeply familiar as an anime, yet ambitious in how it illustrates the possibilities of music, friendship, and the internet. For anime and sci-fi fans alike, Belle is worth the watch.
Belle is streaming now on HBO Max.