"Alita: Battle Angel" — Humanity in a World of AI

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"Alita, Battle Angel" by Sr. Nancy Usselmann, fsp (CatholicMom.com)

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

The release of Alita: Battle Angel, a cyperpunk action film based on the Japanese manga comic by Yukito Kishiro, follows in the line of numerous techno-comics that imagine a dystopian world far into the future with human-like cyborgs fighting for domination. It leads viewers to question our humanity and what it really means to be human within the sci-fi experience of the fight between good and evil. It brings artificial intelligence to a whole new level of emotional connection and feeling.

This long-in-the-making film by James Cameron and Jon Landau, written by Cameron and Leata Kalogridis and directed by Robert Rodriguez, sets us in the year 2563 after “The Fall” devastated the earth and left a junkyard of steel and technology piled up in area of Iron City. The residents scrape their way through existence hoping to one day make it to the floating sky city of Zalem.

As Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a renowned scientist who was exiled from Zalem with his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), rummages through the scrap piles he comes across the head of a female cyborg with a human brain still intact. He brings her home, fits her to a cyborg body and calls her Alita after his young daughter who died years earlier. Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no memory of her past but is eventually revealed through her many experiences.

She ventures out to encounter the world in Iron City when she meets the human Hugo (Keean Johnson) and his friends. After inviting her to play the highly competitive sport of Motorball, Alita begins to discover her extraordinary gifts and her human feelings, especially of loneliness of not knowing who she is or where came from. Her powers are exhibited even more poignantly when she follows Dr. Ido on his jaunts out at night and realizes that he is a Hunter-Warrior. When three cyborg warriors, led by the monstrously large Grewishka (Jackie Earl Haley), attack Dr. Ido Alita jumps in to defeat them with some extraordinary martial arts moves and saves him. Her powers surprise Dr. Ido as well as herself while at the same time her memory is jogged to remember her origins. She later finds a Berserker body in an abandoned sunken ship and brings it back to Ido asking that he connect her to this body since she feels it’s really who she is meant to be. He refuses knowing that this could unleash a tremendous power within her.

"Alita, Battle Angel" by Sr. Nancy Usselmann, fsp (CatholicMom.com)

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

In a typical teenage huff, she storms off to become a Hunter-Warrior and confronts all the bounty hunters in the Kansas Bar asking them to join her to fight off the bully Grewishka. They all refuse. When Grewishka shows up intimidatingly rebuilt she fights him off but is brutally hurt and Ido rebuilds her with the Berserker body. Alita is restored with a power beyond her imagining.

At this point, Alita realizes she has feelings for Hugo. This is the point of the film that piqued my interest in this film genre. How do the creators understand humanity? What does it mean to be human? From a theological standpoint, AI cannot simply replicate the human person because we are both body and soul. The soul, which is the supernatural aspect of the person is beyond scientific rationalization, nor can the human mind with its regulation of feelings, emotions, and desires enter into a machine, as much as science desires that to happen. The human person’s desire to connect with another human being defies simple functionality or animal instinct but enters the realm of emotional unity and the supernatural yearning for communion.

This is where the true meaning of love comes into play. So, when Alita tells Hugo that she is not one of his kind, he remarks that, “You are more human than anyone I know.” Sure, they are speaking of love, but in a shallow sort of feeling way and not the self-gift that love really requires. Besides, this is fiction, so anything can happen. In one way, it shows that technically we can create robots and machines to be stronger, faster, and more powerful than any human being, but only human beings can truly find purpose and meaning in relationships with others.

Alita wants to help Hugo get to Zalem, his life’s desire, and he needs money to pay his way there so she enters the Motorball competition to win the grand prize for Hugo. After much intense fighting sequences and threats to both herself and Hugo, Alita must make an ultimate decision about the one she loves. Through her struggle she pursues more intensely to become a Motorball champion. Yet, she is seen by Zalem’s mastermind, Nova (Edward Norton uncredited), who obviously knows her and the power she inhabits but the story leaves us to imagine the past or anticipate sequels.

Anyone who enjoys sci-fi films and manga comics will find this an exciting and thrilling experience from start to finish. I also experienced a virtual tour of the Iron City, duplicated for press people to enter into the duplicated sets of the film, which piqued my interest in the story.

I find the plot to be more surprisingly “human” than I expected with the dynamic interplay of relationships with moral decisions and imagination weaved in. It offers one a chance to question what it means to be human? What is the importance of relationships to our human existence? And, what allows us as human beings to keep pursuing a goal even when the struggle seems to overpower us? If the goal of life is this earth alone, then it’s pretty bleak. But, if we desire to reach for the heavens (here symbolized by a supposed greater good of the sky city of Zalem) we reach for what is unknown, and thereby take a leap of faith. Is Zalem really all that it’s expected to be—a utopian existence? Or is it another invention of the overreaching human mind to make this world our “heaven” rather than belief in a life after death? In the end, as in every superhero and sci-fi story, is violence the answer to overcoming oppression? When will we see that violence only begets more violence? What happens when human beings try to control science and technology in such a way as to overreach our creation?

These are the questions that come to my mind as I enjoy the creative sci-fi experience of Alita: Battle Angel. It’s a great movie to discuss with youth and young adults who are familiar with the manga genre to ask what thrills them the most about this film and what it really means to be human in a world of artificial intelligence, something every tech company is scrambling to create. I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment by James Cameron, which will come after the Avatar sequels are released. I’m hooked. You may be too.


Copyright 2019 Sr. Nancy Usselmann, fsp

This article originally posted on bemediamindful.org.

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About Author

Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP is a Daughter of St Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, CA. She is a Media Literacy Education Specialist, theologian, international speaker, film reviewer, and blogger for BeMediaMindful.org. Her book A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics is a theology of popular culture published by Wipf & Stock Publishing.

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