Alita battles with the question of how our choices define who we are.
Alita: Battle Angel seems to be the latest in a long line of dystopian futures where the elite rule and the oppressed wait for an unexpected hero—or in this case, a cyborg heroine. Yet this science fiction fantasy is built on a factual debate that’s already been raging for centuries: Do my genes tell me who I am, or do my choices have more to say?
Alita is set several hundred years into the future, among the sordid streets that make up Iron City. There, cybernetics specialist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a perfectly preserved human brain in a shattered robotic shell. He labours to rebuild his find and christens the girl who walks from his workshop, Alita. Played by Rosa Salazar, Alita has no memory of her past and is an innocent in an otherwise brutal world.
It becomes clear that Alita possesses martial abilities her friends can only guess at. It seems she is a remnant of the last great battle that shook this planet, and her unification with a cybernetic ‘berserker’ body hailing from that time promises to resurrect that conflict. Alita’s emergence sends ripples through her impoverished home that extend as far as the wealthy sky city floating above it.
When its ruling class sends assassins to remove this unwelcome reminder of its past, Alita realises she faces a choice that will define not only her future, but her very identity. “You told me the story of the war when the ground shook and the sky burned. Of the ones that survived who awoke to a different world, where the powerful can prey on you. But that’s not the way it has to be.”
Alita: Battle Angel is more than just a special-effects-driven extravaganza. Its pedigree boasts some of sci-fi’s most inventive minds. Producer James Cameron is responsible for creating some of Hollywood’s fiercest film heroines, including Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor. Director Robert Rodriguez has engaged audiences with visionary storylines stretching from Spy Kids to Sin City. Yet the most important inclusion of all is their source material—the cyberpunk manga created by Yukito Kishiro.
We can’t shrug off our responsibility with ‘made that way’ arguments any more than Alita can.
These detailed comics regularly wrestled with the concept of identity, asking whether it was Alita’s high-tech origins (her nature) or the choices she made guided by her adopted family (her nurture) that would have the final say.
While nature vs nurture might sound like too esoteric an argument for our feelings-oriented 21st century, we can’t shrug off our responsibility with ‘made that way’ arguments any more than Alita can. For good or ill, we are raised in a context that wields more power than our genes. It’s the choices we make, based on the cultural input we receive, that will ultimately decide who we are. And that’s the same advice Dr Ido gives his cyborg charge, who was literally designed to be a fighter:
Alita: “I don’t know what I am.”
Dr Ido: “I do. You’re the most advanced weapon ever. But that’s just a shell… It’s not bad or good. That part’s up to you.”
He’s echoing Jesus’ own ancient wisdom, that our choices are more certain to define us than our biology: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…” (Matthew chapter 15, verses 19–20).
God, it seems, will not hold anyone accountable for their genetic make-up, but for what their heart leads them to do with it. When Alita fights, it’s her choices, not her circuits that will come under judgment. And when you and I walk out of the cinema, we’ll be operating under the same responsibility.