Review: Far From Heaven—Robert Rodriguez's "Alita: Battle Angel"

What makes a woman a woman? What—or really, who—makes a person a person?
Kelley Dong

The trailer for the forthcoming Captain Marvel, which precedes screenings of Alita: Battle Angel, contains eight match cuts depicting Captain Marvel falling to the ground and standing back up again at various moments from adolescence to adulthood as an Air Force cadet. As she rises, the word “her” appears, later completed to spell out “hero.” (Military news site Task and Purpose notes that the trailer is very similar to a 2017 recruitment video for the U.S. Marine Corps.) Solace and solidarity offered on a platter. The bait, however, is only a temporary comfort. Because the presumption that all women can be coalesced into a singular “her” is a very profitable commodity, it can only be rejected by abandoning and taking apart its foundation, the dream of personhood as a question of biological traits or lived experience (essentialism, so to speak). What makes a woman a woman? What—or really, who—makes a person a person?

Like fireworks, Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, a long-gestating James Cameron production, is bracing, a multi-patterned eruption scattered across a broad sky. Its ideas, however, are not buried by subtexts, instead shining with a bright obviousness. The cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) descends from the “sky city” of Zalem and into a derelict junkyard. She is already severed, only a head and neck spewing cords and wires. Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) retrieves the machine and holds her up to the sun. He’s alarmed to find that she—a robot made of ancient enemy technology—is fully alive.

Back in his Iron City lab, Ido transfers his late daughter’s body (pale and pearly, engraved with flowers) and name, Alita, to his adopted android. Alita opens her eyes the next morning; she looks into the mirror with the self-consciousness of a teenager suddenly aware that they have a tangible presence in the world. Ido, assuming the role of her patriarch, becomes afraid of the world that awaits her. She presses her cheeks, stretches out her arms. Outside of Ido’s lab, a mechanic, Hugo (Keean Johnson), flushes at the sight of her. He introduces her to her first bite of chocolate, and as briskly as a motorcycle drive through town, the two fall in love. “I’m just an insignificant girl,” she tells him, a thought containing both insecurity and strands of wishful thinking. But the hectic day-to-day of being a girl—hours spent loitering with a boyfriend and petting puppies—is not enough to draw her away from her reflection. As she insists to anyone who listens, she needs to know “who I really am.” The cyborg's self-interrogation, though archetypal to cybernetic cinema, functions as the cornerstone of Alita: Battle Angel. Simultaneously, a reassessment of the relationship between a body and its parts extends from the ontology of one being to the political economy of an entire society.

The child’s uncanny encounter with their body is one that Rodriguez has previously deployed as a coming-of-age metaphor. One might recall the battle in Spy Kids (2001), when the Cortez siblings must defeat their robot duplicates; or the premise of The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (2005), which transports a boy to an imaginary universe inhabited by mutated versions of the bullies that taunt him back home. Alita: Battle Angel, however, alters the sequence: Rather than destroy a vision of herself that appears unreal and out of reach, Alita takes hold of the right to imagine outside of the constraints of her present form. The only opponent is anyone who poses a block between Alita and her attainment of a truer self. But in Iron City, where each facet of everyday life has become commercialized, the pricelessness of Alita’s self-actualization threatens the predetermined order.

Iron City, a desert cityscape stacked with shacks, is a post-war society of collapsed borders, inhabited by refugees. (Though in Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Gunnm, upon which Alita is based, the walls are decorated in variations of Korean, Hebrew, and Arabic; the signs of Rodriguez’s Iron City predominantly display Spanish and English). Everyone works for a factory run by Zalem. There are hunter-warriors, murderous cyborgs who work as on-call police officers, and athletes who compete in the break-neck sport of Motorball (a cross between roller derby and handball) for a chance at winning a trip to Zalem, an alluring domain of opulence that very few have ever seen before. A hired hand for the crime lord Vector (Mahershala Ali), Hugo tirelessly works towards moving to the sky city. Mystified by the boss’s promise, he does not know that Vector is the pawn of a man upstairs. The white-haired, blue-eyed scientist Nova (Edward Norton), who lives among the clouds in Zalem, manipulates the criminal puppets planted across Iron City as he pleases, exploiting the passive workers below with the notion that with enough money, they could one day find Zalem.  

Though its infrastructure nears full automation, the city resembles the Germany of 1517 that Martin Luther decried in The Ninety-Five Theses, upheld by the sales of indulgences (payments made to reduce punishment in the afterlife) by the Roman Catholic Church. It was Luther who proclaimed that “human doctrines [...] say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory,” and such is the bait that feeds the aspirational desire of Iron City's inhabitants to escape the city by partaking in capitalism—earning more, spending more, and praying for salvation. Because the factory owns every facet of the public domain, the city-dwellers move with the weight of a bounty over their heads: Ido sulks beneath his worn-out trench coat, Hugo gazes at the stars indignant over the cruelty of circumstance. Atop a tall building, it is he who laughs and corrects Alita that she should be looking up, not down.

Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto defines cyborgs as beings that are “not reverent; they do not remember the cosmos.” Alita glides with the lightness of one outside of the garden of Eden, freed to make her own judgment of good and evil. In combat, her movements (based on the Panzer Kunst martial arts form, originating from Mars) are firm but mercurial (for instance, a jump with an outstretched leg that severs an arm with a graceful landing). But even throughout the escalating class warfare overtaking Iron City, still there is the stiffening unease that only she perceives—the confusion stirred by the mirror. To quote J. Rosenfield, “she knows that her body is wrong. This is perhaps the only thing she knows." Only days after she regained consciousness, the cyborg—in the body of the previous Alita—becomes Ido’s daughter and Hugo’s partner. And though she tries to explain the returning memories of running across a battlefield and defeating Zalem forces on the moon (reminiscent of the lucid hallucination sequences of co-screenwriter Laeta Elizabeth Kalogridis’s Shutter Island), rarely does anyone stop to really listen. So, she suffers alone. This suffocation cuts deepest whenever Salazar’s voice crackles with desperation, and tears pool in her digitized eyes. Pain finds its relief when Alita dives into a faraway lake and retrieves a 300-year-old armor belonging to the United Republic of Mars (URM), her home planet. She realizes there that she is neither of the sky or the ground, but somewhere far away.

There is a direct correlation between the bodily dissatisfaction that keeps Alita up at night and body dysphoria. Structurally, Alita: Battle Angel is bifurcated into what we might refer to pre-and post-transition chapters, the first being her occupation of the body of Ido’s daughter, and the second being her attainment and reclamation of the URM armor. The latter, however, has sparked a muddled discourse debating what Carol Grant refers to as Alita: Battle Angel’s “fixation on body” and its place among “transgender […] cyberpunk” titles like Ghost in the Shell. Scared of the uninhibited power of URM technology, Ido initially refuses to surgically attach Alita to the armor, and she, exasperated by the continual misunderstandings, runs off. Her fragile frame eventually falls apart, and so the surgery becomes an urgent necessity. No body can sustain Alita besides the one she has chosen for herself. The contested scene in question, deemed perverse and predatory by some, is this: Once joined with her URM suit, Alita undergoes a bodily transformation that involves tracking shots and close-ups of her enlarged breasts, narrowed waist, and lengthened legs. The armor has adapted to her “subconscious image of herself.” But what happens when the imagined self becomes tangible and enters the world?

Without genitalia or chromosomes, Alita’s attainment of these new parts (as interchangeable as her detachable fingers and toes), invites a wariness reserved for those perceived as outsiders. The fluidity with which she can be assembled and disassembled persists alongside a rigid rubric that cannot leave her uncategorized. Critic Angie Han wonders aloud if an image of Alita’s “curvier body [was] strictly necessary,” and Richard Brody describes the “grotesque and queasy” treatment of Alita’s changing body parts as “cine-erotic leering.” But Alita: Battle Angel does not flatly oppose this intellectual failure to think past binaries—two genders, two sexes, two sets of parts—but counters it with a considerable degree of nuance. Within a repressive and narrow space, Alita's "new" body is both a vessel of resistance and restriction. Overcome with excitement, she senses a rush of strength running through her. "I feel more me," she tells Hugo. Not a "battle girl" but a "battle angel"—as lifted from the English title for the Gunnm series—Alita is as flexibly sexed and beyond the bounds of gendering as the figures of Renaissance paintings. But through the perception of her parts, she becomes socialized as an "insignificant girl" nonetheless. Only after the procedure does Tanji (Hugo's friend, played by Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) call Alita a "hardbody." Even Hugo cannot help but leer at her latex limbs in the glow of the streetlights, claiming that she looks "...different." Despite the wholeness and joy achieved, Alita's construction is indeed too close to the assembly line of sexual fantasy for comfort. Thus, it becomes necessary to dismantle the factory altogether.  

The merging of the individual mind and body does not singlehandedly break any chain. Doctor Ido soberly remarks that Alita's near-invincible armor is “just a shell; it’s neither good or bad.” And though Alita would even tear her own heart out for those she loves, good intentions held together by a good shell are not enough. Hugo still saves his money for Zalem, and Alita—who tries to protect her family by becoming a hunter-warrior and a Motorball player—cannot hide from those Nova orders to kill. The repeated tangling of Alita: Battle Angel’s crisscrossing narrative, which sporadically intertwines ideas regarding self and structure, soon corners its hero into the center of a knot that she must sever for the sake of saving the world. Hugo, still ignorant to the reality that he is only one gear in the engine, wills himself to walk across a garbage tube connecting Iron City and Zalem. Alita follows after him in an attempt to remind him of their love, but he refuses: “We deserve to be up there!”

In the words of Alita’s counterpart, Gally, from Hiroshi Fukutomi’s two-part 1993 anime Battle Angel, Hugo is a “coward”: he cannot see a life outside of Zalem and Iron City. Unlike Alita, Hugo does not believe in genuine love as revolution, nor does he possess a righteous hatred for those who control his life and labor. Because he cannot decide where he stands, he cannot stand at all, instead condemned to death. The world, however, moves on, and Alita moves with it by competing in the Motorball championship, inching one step closer to Nova. Rodriguez's film shares both Fukutomi and Kishiro's visual homage to the iconographic portraiture of Joan of Arc, another remnant of Catholicism webbed throughout. Coated in metal and equipped with a sword, Alita walks the path of Joan towards liberation, but her guiding light is her humanity (a persisting integrity withstanding the inhumanity of her oppressors), and not the divinity of God. Because Alita does not possess a fear of the temple in the sky that she cannot see, nor the parasitic promise that she might be invited there, she is the only one equipped to take down the heaven that has mandated the division of earth into factions—woman and man, boss and worker, rich and poor. As it says in the Xenofeminist Manifesto of Laboria Cuboniks: “Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology—the sooner it is exorcised, the better.” 

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