This is a review for Alita: Battle Angel, now out in theaters. If you want the review without spoilers, scroll down quickly to the previous post.
It is difficult for any movie to be truly deep. Is Memento deep, or does it just use a backwards-narrative gimmick? Often meaning is something we bring to movies–we interpret them based on our own experiences.
What is the point of cyborgs? They are the ultimate fusion of man and machine. Our technology doesn’t just serve us; it has become us. What are we, then? Are cyborgs human, or more than human? And what of the un-enhanced meatsacks left behind?
Throughout the movie, we see humans with various levels of robotic enhancement, from otherwise normal people with an artificial limb to monstrous brawlers that are almost unrecognizable as human. Alita is a complete cyborg whose only “human” remain left is her biological brain (perhaps she has a skull, too.) The rest of her, from heart to toes, is machine, and can be disassembled and replaced as necessary.
The graphic novels go further than Alita–in one case, a whole community breaks down after it discovers that the adults have had their brains replaced with computer chips. Can a “human” have a metal body but a meat brain? Can a “human” have a meat body but a computer brain? Alita says yes, that humanity is more than just the raw material we are built of.
(It also goes much less–is Ido’s jet-powered hammer that he uses in battle any different from a jet-powered hammer built into your arm? Does it matter whether you can put the technology down and pack it into a suitcase at the end of the day, or if it is built into your core?)
Yet cyborgs in Alita’s world, despite their obvious advantage over mere humans in terms of speed, reflexes, strength, and ability to switch your arms out for power saws, are mostly true to their origin as disabled people whose bodies were replaced with artificial limbs. Alita’s first body, given to her at the beginning of the movie after she is found without one, was originally built for a little girl in a wheelchair. She reflects to a friend that she is now fast because the little girl’s father built her a fast pair of legs so she could finally run.
The upper class–to the extent that we see them–has no obvious enhancements. Indeed, the most upper class family we meet in the movie, which originally lived in the floating city of Tiphares (Zalem in the movie) was expelled from the city and sent down to the scrap yard with the rest of the trash because of their disabled daughter–the one whose robotic body Alita inherits.
Hugo is an ordinary meat boy with what we may interpret as a serious prejudice against cyborgs–though he comes across as a nice lad, he moonlights as a thief who who kidnaps cyborgs and chops off their body parts for sale on the black market. Hugo justifies himself by claiming he “never killed anyone,” which is probably true, but the process certainly hurts the cyborgs (who cry out in pain as their limbs are sawed off,) and leaves them lying disabled in the street.
Hugo isn’t doing it because he hates cyborgs, though. They’re just his ticket to money–the money he needs to get to Tiphares/Zalem. For even though it is said that no one in the Scrap Yard (Iron City in the movie) is ever allowed into Tiphares, people still dream of Heaven. Hugo believes a notorious fixer named Vector can get him into Tiphares if he just pays him enough money.
Some reviewers have identified Vector as the Devil himself, based on his line, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” which the Devil speaks in Milton’s Paradise Lost–though Milton is himself reprising Achilles in the Odyssey, who claims, “By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man / some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive / than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
Yet the Scrap Yard is not Hell. Hell is another layer down; it is the sewers below the Scrap Yard, where Alita’s first real battle occurs. The Scrap Yard is Purgatory; the Scrap Yard is Earth, suspended between both Heaven and Hell, from which people can chose to arise (to Tiphares) or descend (to the sewers.) But whether Tiphares is really Heaven or just a dream they’ve been sold remains to be seen–for everyone in the Scrap Yard is fallen and none may enter Heaven.
Alita, you probably noticed, descended into Hell to fight an evil monster–in the manga, because he kidnapped a baby; in the movie because he was trying to kill her. In the ensuing battle, she is crushed and torn to pieces, sacrificing her final limb to drill out the monster’s eye. Her unconscious corpse is rescued by her friends, dragged back to the surface, and then rebuilt with a new body.
“I do not stand by in the presence of evil”–Alita
“But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.” 1 Corinthians, 15
Alita has died and been resurrected. Whether she will ascend into Heaven remains a matter for the sequel. (She does. Obviously.)
Through his relationship with Alita (they smooch), Hugo realizes that cyborgs are people, too, and maybe he shouldn’t chop them up for money. “You are more human than anyone I know,” he tells her.
Alita, in a scene straight from The Last Temptation of Christ, offers Hugo her heart–literally–to sell to raise the remaining money he needs to make it to Tiphares.
Hugo, thankfully, declines the offer, attempting to make it to Tiphares on his own two feet (newly resurrected after Alita saves his life by literally hooking him up to her own life support system)–but no mere mortal can ascend to Tiphares; even giants may not assault the gates of Heaven.
The people of the Scrap Yard are fallen–literally–from Tiphares, their belongings and buildings either relics from the time before the fall or from trash dumped from above. There is hope in the Scrap Yard, yet the Scrap Yard generates very little of its own, explaining its entirely degraded state.
This is a point where the movie fails–the set builders made the set too nice. The Scrap Yard is a decaying, post-apocalyptic waste filled with strung-out junkies and hyper-violent-TV addicts. In one scene in the manga, Doc Ido, injured, collapses in the middle of a crowd while trying to drag the remains of Alita’s crushed body back home so he can fix her. Bleeding, he cries out for help–but the crowd, entranced by the story playing out on the screens around them, ignores them both.
In the movie, the Scrap Yard has things like oranges and chocolate–suggesting long-distance trade and large-scale production–things they really shouldn’t be able to do. In the manga, the lack of police makes sense, as this is a society with no ability to cooperate for the common good. Since the powers that be would like to at least prevent their own deaths at the hands of murderers, the Scrap Yard instead puts bounties on the heads of criminals, and licensed “Hunter Warriors” decapitate them for money.
(A hunter license is not difficult to obtain. They hand them out to teenage girls.)
Here the movie enters its discussion of Free Will.
Alita awakes with no memory of her life before she became a decapitated head sitting in a landfill. She has the body of a young teen and, thankfully, adults willing to look out for her as she learns about life in Iron City from the ground up–first, that oranges have to be peeled; second, that cars can run you over.
The movie adds the backstory about Doc Ido’s deceased, disabled daughter for whom he built the original body that he gives to Alita. This is a good move, as it makes explicit a relationship that takes much longer to develop in the manga (movies just don’t have the same time to develop plots as a manga series spanning decades.) Since Alita has no memory, she doesn’t remember her own name (Yoko). Doc therefore names her “Alita,” after the daughter whose body she now wears.
As an adopted child myself, I feel a certain kinship with narratives about adoption. Doc wants his daughter back. Alita wants to discover her true identity. Like any child, she is growing up, discovering love, and wants different things for her life than her father does.
Despite her amnesia, Alita has certain instincts. When faced with danger, she responds–without knowing how or why–with a sudden explosion of violence, decapitating a cyborg that has been murdering young women in her neighborhood. Alita can fight; she is extremely skilled in an advanced martial art developed for cyborgs. In short, she is a Martian battle droid that has temporarily mistaken itself for a teenage girl.
She begs Ido to hook her up to a stronger body (the one intended for his daughter was not built with combat in mind,) but he refuses, declaring that she has a chance to start over, to become something totally new. She has free will. She can become anything–so why become a battle robot all over again?
But Alita cannot just remain Doc’s little girl. Like all children, she grows–and like most adopted children, she wants to know who she is and where she comes from. She is good at fighting. This is her only connection to her past, and as she asserts, she has a right to that. Doc Ido has no right to dictate her future.
What is Alita? As far as she knows, she is trash, broken refuse literally thrown out through the Tipharean rubbish chute. The worry that you were adopted because you were unwanted by your biological parents–thrown away–plagues many adopted children. But as Alita discovers, this isn’t true. She’s not trash–she’s an alien warrior who once attacked Earth and ended up unconscious in the scrap yard after losing most of her body in the battle. Like the Nephilim, she is a heavenly battle angel who literally fell to Earth.
By day, Ido is a doctor, healing people and fixing cyborgs. By night, he is a Hunter Warrior, killing people. For Ido, killing is expression of rage after his daughter’s death, a way of channeling a psychotic impulse into something that benefits society by aiming it at people even worse than himself. But for Alita, violence serves a greater purpose–she uses her talent to eliminate evil and serve justice. Alita’s will is to protect the people she loves.
After Alita runs away, gets in a fight, descends into Hell, and is nearly completely destroyed, Doc relents and attaches her to a more powerful, warrior body. He recognizes that time doesn’t freeze and he cannot keep Alita forever as his daughter (a theme revisited later in the manga when Nova tries to trap Alita in an alternative-universe simulation where she never becomes a Hunter Warrior.
In an impassioned speech, Nova declares, “I spit upon the second law of thermodynamics!” He wants to freeze time; prevent decay. But even Nova, as we have seen, cannot contain Alita’s will. She knows it is a simulation. She plays along for a bit, enjoying the story, then breaks out.
Alita’s new body uses “nanotechnology,” which is to say, magic, to keep her going. Indeed, the technology in the movie is no more explained than magic in Harry Potter, other than some technobabble about how Alita’s heart contains a miniature nuclear reactor that could power the whole city, which is how she was able to stay alive for 300 years in a trash heap.
With her more powerful body, Alita is finally able to realize herself.
Alita’s maturation from infant (a living head completely unable to move,) to young adult is less explicit in the movie than in the manga, but it is still there–with the reconfiguration of her new body based on Alita’s internal self-image, Doc discovers that “She is a bit older than you thought she was.” In a dream sequence in the original, the metaphors are made explicit–limbless Alita in one scene becomes an infant strapped to Doc’s back as he roots through the dump for parts. Then she receives a pair of arms, and finally legs, turning into a toddler and a girl. Finally, with her berserker body, she achieves adulthood.
But with all of this religious imagery, is Tiphares really heaven? Of course not–if it were, why would Nova–who is the true villain trying to kill her–live there? There was a war in the Heavens–but the Heavens are far beyond Tiphares. Alita will escape Purgatory and ascend to Tiphares–and unlike the others, she will not do it by being chopped into body parts for Nova’s experiments.
For the mind is its own place, and can make a Heaven of Hell, and a Hell of Heaven.
Tiphares is only the beginning, just as the Scrap Yard is not the Hell we take it for.