Cyborg Dreams: Alita Review with Spoilers

220px-battle_angel_alita_28issue_1_-_cover29This 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.

Review: Battle Angel Alita 5/5 stars

mv5bnzvhmjcxyjytotvhos00mzq1lwfintatzmy2zmjjnjixmjllxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq40._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_I have not seen a movie aimed at adults, in an actual theater, in over a decade. Alita: Battle Angel broke my movie fast because I was a huge fan of the manga.

It was marvelous.

I can’t judge the movie from the perspective of someone who has seen every last Marvel installment, nor one who hasn’t read the manga. But it is visually stunning, with epic battle scenes and a philosophical core.

What does it mean to be human? Can robots be human? What about humanoid battle cyborgs? Alita is simultaneously human–a teenage girl searching for her place in this world–and inhuman–a devastating battle droid.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so I’ll showcase the trailer:

Yes, she has giant anime eyes. You get used to it quickly.

I saw it in 3D, which was amazing–the technology we have for making and distributing movies in general is amazing, but this is a film whose action sequences really stand out in the medium.

The story is basically true to its manga inspiration, though there are obvious changes. The original story is much too long for a single movie, for example, and the characters often paused in the middle of battle for philosophical conversations. The movie lets the philosophy hang more in the background, (even skipping the Nietzsche.)

The movie’s biggest weakness was the main set, which was just too pleasant looking to be as gritty as the characters regarded it. There are a few other world-building inconsistencies, but nothing on the scale of “Why didn’t the giant eagles just fly the ring to Mordor?” or “how does money work in Harry Potter?”

51aam32ywvlThe movie has no shoe-horned-in political agenda–Alita never stops to whine about how women are treated in Iron City, for example, she just explodes with family-protecting violence. The plot is structured around class inequality, but this is a fairly believable backdrop since class is a real thing we all deal with in the real world. The movie does feature the “tiny girl who can beat up big bad guys” trope, but then, she is a battle droid made of metal, so Alita’s fighting skills make more sense than, say, River Tam’s.

Unfortunately, there are a few lose ends that are clearly supposed to carry into a sequel, which may not happen if all of the nay-sayers get their way. This makes the movie feel a touch unfinished–the story isn’t over.

So what’s with all of the bad reviews?

Over on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics gave the movie a 60% rating, while the movie going public has given it a 93% rating. That’s quite the split. Perhaps there are some movies that critics just don’t get, but certain fans love. But I note that other superhero movies, like Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, received quite good reviews, despite the fact that pretty much all superhero movies are absurd if you think about them for too long. (GotG stars a raccoon, for goodness sake.)

Overall, if you like superhero/action movies, you will probably like Alita.

So why did I like the manga so much?

In part, it was just timing–I had a Japanese friend and we liked to hang out and watch anime together. In part it was artistic–Alita is a lovely character, and as a young female, I was smitten both with her cyborg good looks and the fact that she looks more like me than most superheroes. I spent much of my youth drawing cyborg girls of my own. Beyond that, it’s hard to say–sometimes you just like something.

What about you? Seen anything good, lately?

Movie Reviews: Noah (2/5 stars) and God’s Not Dead (5/5)

Noah (warning, spoilers)

I’d heard Noah was bad, but wanted to see for myself. (It’s on Netflix if you’re similarly curious about this trainwreck, but there are many, many better uses for your time.)

Noah was apparently made by people who completely forgot, halfway through, who their target market actually is. The vast majority of people interested in a movie about a Biblical patriarch are religious folks, and religious folks don’t want to watch Noah go crazy and run around trying to murder babies. According to IMDB, the director is an atheist, so that may explain why he failed completely to understand his target demographic (though this really is no excuse, since I’m an atheist, and I can figure this shit out.)

Perhaps there exists some non-American market where this combination goes over fine.

The movie started out fairly strong, aside from the annoying blue-lighting effect they use that makes everything look, well, blue. The landscape was also problematic; I think of Noah as living somewhere in the Middle East, and I think they filmed it in Iceland. But anyway, they managed to take something that is usually regarded as a children’s story (which entails its own irony,) and give it an apocalyptic, epic feel, somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien and other such recent fantasies, as we watch our heroes trying to survive on their own in a world where humans are still pretty rare and the ones who are out there have gone evil and are using their advanced tech to hunt down the heroes.

The part about the angels and their redemption was also enjoyable.

A major sub-plot revolved around Noah’s adopted daughter, Hermione Granger, who was afraid to have sex because she thought she was infertile, a hangup no woman in the entire history of the world has ever had.

Eventually Methuselah convinces her that she’s not infertile, so, confident that she can now get pregnant, she runs off to have sex with one of Noah’s sons. And gets pregnant.

Noah, meanwhile, has decided for some reason that god wants humanity to end with him, and so decides to murder Herminone’s babies so they won’t grow up to reproduce like she did.

Hermione has a ridiculously short pregnancy while on the ark (all of the timelines seem to be mashed up on the ark in an attempt to keep you from noticing that they don’t work,) never looks at all like she’s pregnant (seriously, they could afford all that CGI to make fake angels and giant army battle scenes, but they couldn’t figure out what a pregnant woman looks like?) and then five minutes after giving birth is up and running around the ship.

All this technical knowledge of CGI and special effects went into the movie, and the creators don’t even know how long it takes women to recover from childbirth? It might seem like a minor point to you, but watching a character run around when she should be barely able to move and lying in a pool of blood just breaks all suspension of disbelief.

Eventually Noah decides not to kill the babies, because babies, and so the next generation is allowed to exist, and Noah’s other two grown sons can get married to their nieces when the babies grow up, in 14 or 15 years. Then their kids, whose parents were double-siblings, can get married and produce a bunch of cross-eyed babies.

All of this bullshit is completely unnecessary, because in the Biblical account, Noah’s sons are all married and bring their wives aboard the ark. Obviously you can’t really get around the inbreeding in this case, either, but 3 brothers married to 3 different women is still a better case than 3 brothers married to 1 woman and her subsequent daughters.

The finale of the movie, as I recall it, was pretty decent, but didn’t make up for all of the crap in between.

 

God’s Not Dead (Warning, minor spoilers)

God’s Not Dead is the story of a college freshman who stands up to a philosophy 101 teacher who tries to get the entire class to write down that “God is dead” on their first day of class, and goes on to prove to the class, instead, that god is not dead.

I saw this on Netflix and thought, “Someone actually made a movie out of an internet email forward?”

It turned out to be quite good, for what it is. Sadly, there were no weeping bald eagles, but it plays its concept thoroughly without losing sight of its target market, (people who forward stories about Christian students standing up to their professors,) and hits all of its narrative notes exactly as it should.

Personally, I enjoyed this movie because it did a solid job of depicting the characters and their motivations/personalities from the Conservative Christian-American (CCA) perspective. That is, I don’t actually think this is how atheist professors act or think, but I think this is how CCA’s think atheist professors act and think–this is, more or less, how they think liberals and the rest of the world work.

It’s important to understand what other people think and how they perceive the world.

I have nothing to complain about in this movie, but if you don’t like seeing Muslims depicted negatively, you won’t like the Muslim characters in this movie.

The ending could have been stronger if the disparate characters had reached out to each other, because some of them were going through some seriously difficult times; a Christianity that only reaches people individually and does not bring them together into a close-knit community seems unlikely to last. But this is a minor point.

If you are not interested in learning about the CCA perspective, nor the sort of person who’d find the story of a Christian student trying to prove the existence of Christ compelling, then you probably won’t like this movie. If these are the sorts of things that interest you, you might enjoy this movie.

Review: Decoding Neanderthals on PBS (Nova)

Available on Netflix, maybe elsewhere.

Overall: Recommended if you like Neanderthals or human ancestry. Probably not useful if you are already an expert in the field.

Pros: interesting discussion of flint-knapping, gluey pitch production, and Neanderthal burials.

Flint knapping is one of my occasional interests. It is surprisingly difficult to just pick up a rock and produce a useful tool. Without a good teacher, you quickly degenerate to banging the rock on the ground as hard as you can like a retarded monkey. If Kanzi the bonobo saw me trying to make stone tools, he’d probably bring me some fruit out of pity. “Poor hairless idiot ape,” Kanzi would think. “Can’t even make tools. If I don’t feed it, it’ll starve.”

Amusing digression time: Once I was walking through the city, in a semi-developed/semi-overgrown lot, and saw a bit of shiny rocks lying around on the ground. Unusual for the area, because the local geographic history hasn’t led to a lot of rocks on the surface, and most of those are of the duller sedimentary sorts (or, obviously, landscaping materials.) So I picked up this bit of flint, then another bit of flint, and then a larger one with obvious convex areas from being struck with another piece. And a few feet away, here was a piece that fit comfortably into my hand, perfect for knocking chips off the other chunk. Some of the pieces I even managed to fit back together, reassembling the rock that once was.

I came back with a small box and picked up all the bits of flint before development began on the lot. One piece does look like an arrowhead, but given that I found it alongside a bunch of chips that are more or less flint-knapping trash, the arrowhead’s creator probably thought there was something wrong with it.

Sure, the whole little box may be filled with little more than ancient trash, there is something I love about picking up these rocks and being able to see in their shapes the actions of some other humans, the angle they held that rock at, the way they smacked it with another rock to produce these flakes. To feel this connection between myself and some other human who walked here before me, and the traces of their life that no one else walking through that place had noticed.

Anyway, turns out the Neanderthals had a pretty interesting/unique way of making flint tools, that involved first shaping a large block of flint into a specific shape by flaking bits off the sides, and then, with one good hit, knocking off one large slice. This is a more complicated process than merely picking up a rock and whacking bits off of it it until you get an edge.

The gluey pitch seems to have been derived (distilled?) from birch bark. Some scientists demonstrated the process by burning a roll of birch bark in a pit, but they obviously did not use enough bark, and only got a smudge of goo. It’s a bit frustrating watching someone do something obviously wrong–since you’re filming this for TV, why not use a great big bunch of birch bark so you can get enough pitch to actually show us?

Anyway, looks like Neanderthals distilled this gluey stuff and then used it to help secure the flint tips to their spears, before thrusting them into the sides of enormous shaggy elephants, which are quite formidable animals. So the pitch (and bindings) had to be pretty darn good.

Neanderthals also seem to have buried their dead, though the show notes that their potential grave-goods pale in comparison to similar human burials.

The parts about Neanderthal DNA will be of interest to you if you don’t know about the Neanderthal/human DNA admixture business already, or you’ve heard about it but are still a little unclear on the details. The scientists interviewed claimed that it looks like there were a lot of interbreeding incidents rather than just a few, but “a lot” in this case does not necessarily mean “thousands”.

 

Cons: For a program that goes into depth on how inaccurate depictions of Neanderthals happened (ages ago, someone found a skeleton with arthritis and concluded that all Neanderthals were stooped,) their depiction of the homo Sapiens who first encountered the Neanderthals was also inaccurate.

The first encounters between humans and Neanderthals probably happened in the Middle East, shortly after h Sapiens left Africa, but before they had split into Asian and European branches. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, whites did not yet exist. We’re not sure exactly when white skin evolved, but it probably wasn’t before h Sapiens got to Europe.

(Of course, it could be the other way around, and it’s the Bushmen who’ve changed since they split off.)

Either way, it’s pretty easy to assume things that are probably wrong, and the h Sapiens who first encountered h Neanderthals were probably more similar in appearance to modern Africans or Middle Easterners than Europeans.

A second issue occurred during a dramatization of the Neanderthal and h Sapiens DNA. Neanderthal DNA was depicted as red, and h Sapiens as blue. (Erm, I think. Unless I’ve got it backwards.) They then showed a “combined” DNA strand with blue and red pieces.

While this is a fine way to visualize what’s going on, I would just like to clarify that DNA isn’t actually blue or red, nor are there folks running around with mosaic red/blue variants.

You may be laughing (I burst out laughing at the sight of it,) but I know people who would very sincerely and devoutly insist that “Humans have different colored DNA from Neanderthals. I saw this program on PBS all about it, and I know PBS is accurate. You should watch the program!”

You can imagine how talking to these people makes me feel.

Finally, my last complaint is that there was no discussion of Neanderthal DNA in Native Americans!

Worldwide distribution of B006, (from Yotova et al. “An X-Linked Haplotype of Neandertal Origin Is Present Among All Non-African Populations,” Mol. Biol. Evol. 28 (7), 2011).
Worldwide distribution of B006, (from Yotova et al. “An X-Linked Haplotype of Neandertal Origin Is Present Among All Non-African Populations,” Mol. Biol. Evol. 28 (7), 2011).
SNP PCA from Skoglund & Jakobsson’s “Archaic Human Ancestry in East Asia” (2011)
SNP PCA from Skoglund & Jakobsson’s “Archaic Human Ancestry in East Asia” (2011)

Right, so what’s up with Native Americans? You may have noticed that during the discussion with the map, no jellybeans were placed on the Americas at all. What a pity, when there’s still so much about the peopling of the Americas that we don’t know.

In the future, I’m hoping for similar documentaries about the Denisovans and their DNA admixture in modern humans.