Flesh Without Blood
Alita: Battle Angel moves like an eel through water. Its narrative line convolutes and writhes with episodic incident but it flaunts effortless visual clarity, the kind of spatially coherent action that launched an entire school of film criticism. If the script, by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, feels slightly musty, slightly adolescent, it’s easy to imagine it as a final summation of all the adaptive ideas the writers must have been kicking around for the past two decades as they struggled to get the film made at all. It is an awkward, earnest frame that enables absolute virtuosity on the part of its makers; a gun dream built with total care.
Kalogridis worked on early drafts with Cameron, though she says she wasn’t involved with the film’s production. Her work as showrunner and writer on Netflix’s Altered Carbon (2018) is especially germane in this context. Like Alita, Altered Carbon concerns itself with bodies, identity, and the ways in which technology expedites remixing and reclaiming the two. It is full of blunt-force cyberpunk social commentary and relishes in discomfiting violence done to physical forms that are treated by their owners as cavalierly as if they were synthetic. Alita explores these topics in a more satisfying way, but it also benefits from brevity; a 10-episode Alita Netflix series would drag and wander as surely as any of the service’s original shows.
Kalogridis and Cameron’s script may not be elegant but it knows what it’s about and it nails down the moments that matter. A clutch of lines strike right at the heart of all the nebulous cyberpunk preoccupations with gender and humanity, girding them with the genre’s ideal emotional weight, a tenor that US genre cinema has rarely grasped.
Alita’s “Whose body is this?” strikes at a kind of dysphoric terror. Four words, delivered offhandedly, that will raise an unavoidable specter in the minds of a certain segment of the film’s audience. J. Rosenfield’s piece on the film was the first longform writing to reckon with Alita in a transgender context; they provided a beacon in the midst of what felt like widespread dismissal of the film’s potential resonance for anyone not like its professional-critic detractors.
[S]he knows that her body is wrong. This is perhaps the only thing she knows. She knows it because she doesn’t have to know it. She feels it somewhere deep within herself, some part she can’t access but only feel its reverberations thrumming arrhythmically through her mind.
Rosenfield links Alita’s own burst of existential confusion to that produced in the viewer at the sight of Alita herself; the synthesis of Rosa Salazar’s broad, gleeful performance and the comprehensive effects work by Weta Digital, Framestore, and DNEG. As people gawk at Alita on the street so too does the viewer peer at the digital construct onscreen; maybe attempting to see the seams between actor and effects, maybe not.
“How much can we attribute to the actor when every detail we see on screen may be the result of interfering animation?” Rosenfield writes. “Alita: Battle Angel made me wonder: Does it matter?” For many critics, it predictably did. The use of CG in action movies is endlessly contested and complained about, usually because it’s evident that it was used at all—thus disrupting the assumed indexicality of the image. These complaints aren’t inaccurate, necessarily, in that a digital or composited image is not capturing a physical reality, but they often foreclose further analysis of “cyborg cinema” (to use critic J. Hoberman‘s rather fitting term, although from its inception cinema has been inextricable from the technologies enabling it). Of course when CG isn’t visible, it doesn’t mean it’s not there; we as viewers tend to focus on its more overt uses simply because we can see them.
Thanks to her oversized, glossy eyes and segmented synthetic body, Alita looks different from everyone else in the film; on a plot level, this is because she is the last of her kind. She is literally not like anyone else around her, a living ghost, an echo. Her visual difference also fits a trans reading so neatly that it almost seems crude to explicate. If you have lived your life afraid to be seen, maybe even by yourself, and then, when you’re finally out, living with the queasy reality that to be seen is both nourishing and dangerous—if you might know what that feels like then this movie will speak to you.
Alita does not pass as human, either as actor or character, but the film remarkably doesn’t see “human” as the only option; humanity is more than the innate quality of an organic body birthed in a womb (Blade Runner 2049 could never!!). Or, put another way: there is more to life than humanity.
The scenes in which Alita struggles with her attraction to sub-CW goon Hugo (Keean Johnson) also show the other characters, particularly her de facto father Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), reacting to questions like (paraphrasing here) “Can a robot love a human?” with bemused warmth. Emotionally Alita is childish, though not a child; she feels with overwhelming force and conviction. Alita’s body is sword and shield both and humanity burns white-hot in her atomic heart, a righteous passion that directs her like an arrow toward those who would oppose her.
While Alita: Battle Angel evokes some of the horror of body dysphoria, it does so glancingly; compared to something like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014) it is far less bleak and punishing. It does, however, push past pain to explore gender euphoria, an arena that cinema rarely depicts with any consistency, probably because the people best equipped to express these feelings rarely make films.
Robert Rodriguez, along with his cinematographer Bill Pope and editor Stephen E. Rivkin, take an uncommon approach to framing the action. Instead of attempting to intensify Alita’s physicality through rapid cutting and handheld camera moves, she is kept at a distance from the lens and allowed to perform within the shot. Even during setpieces like the blistering Rollerball throwdown, the frame is absolutely steady. The camera itself moves at speed, but there’s no cliched vérité shakycam used to juice the excitement.
The film is assembled with a kind of reverence for its protagonist, ceding the floor to the intricate enmeshing of effects, performance, stunt work, and writing that form Alita. All the subtlety and clarity one might miss in the script is present in the film’s lucid, controlled form. Watching the way she fights, expertly wielding her tiny frame, is exhilarating. You can see how she uses her body like a handmade sword, something that belongs only to her and that only she knows how to use correctly.
After Alita rises from the depths of the lake where she finds—chooses—her own body, the inert frame cradled in her arms like Excalibur, there is a much-discussed scene where her new body reshapes itself in a rippling wash of nanomachinery. We’re told that it’s conforming to her “subconscious” self-image.+ This moment has been used by some to accuse the film of some prurient interest in sexualizing its protagonist. The sexualization charge is interesting because the scene is explicitly depicting the opposite: Alita refutes the infantilization forced on her by Ido after he placed her in a literal child’s body, trapping her in his own grief over a lost daughter. Ido accepts this, too, accepts that Alita is not his daughter and not a child to be fawned over and protected.
Alita reforms herself to her own image, in the way that I might get top surgery for my own reasons; but both of us are subject to the socialization and interpretation of the world around us. As Kelley Dong writes in a review for MUBI Notebook, despite Alita’s alignment of her body with her body image, “[her] construction is indeed too close to the assembly line of sexual fantasy for comfort. Thus, it becomes necessary to dismantle the factory altogether.”
Alita fights to attain the body she sees herself living in, and once she has it, Salazar’s performance changes to reflect the confidence in her movements. “It feels more … me,” she says, lightly, as she inhabits a superpowered cyborg body built for surgical destruction. Only once her body matches her internal conception of herself can she reach her full potential, her whole being resonating along one furious frequency—one that necessarily shakes the foundations of the world around it.
Dong also references Donna Haraway’s 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto,” a seminal piece of socialist feminist criticism. Haraway’s “ironic political myth” argues against totalizing theoretical declarations and for fluidity of thought, politics, and gender; it is flexible and oft-cited. Part of its appeal, I think, is that it is so slippery a text. Haraway was intentionally opening more circuits than she bothered to close, and her exhortation to contemporary feminist theorists to move beyond embittered essentialist rhetoric would be contentious today, let alone in 1985. One need only look at the desperately revanchist reception of the $150 million US Air Force propaganda object Captain Marvel—men could never understand the lived feminine experience of the military-industrial complex!—to despair at how little the dominant discourse has shifted.
But when prominent film critics are blithely joking that Alita is a fetish object for adult babies or white supremacists (???) it only underlines the need for perspectives that embrace Haraway’s agile cybernetic feminism. As a critic I shouldn’t have to say that Alita is of course fair game for critique, even if you see yourself in it, even if it makes you cry. But it is literally about the experience of having a body on a textual level, and to ignore this as the backbone of the film is to admit your own limitations as a critic. Which is fine—everyone’s perspective has limits. The trick is to step aside when you hit them and make room for people with something to say.
Alita wields her limbs with abandon, unable to rein in her prowess to fit a physical container that isn’t up to the task of executing her fighting style. When she faces off with the hulking Grewishka, she fights through the destruction of her cybernetic frame to defeat him. Her body splinters and shatters; its fragility laid bare under Grewishka’s assault. Finally, left with one arm, she gathers herself into a tiny triangle, balancing on one palm, then leaps, high up, to whip what’s left of her body downward like a dagger straight into Grewishka’s eye—breaking the arm off in his skull. The delicate, girlish frame given to her by Dr. Ido is completely ravaged but she has victory. In this euphoric self-obliteration she finds an opportunity for rebirth in a body of her choosing. A new body that will not yield. That will not break.