By Sigmund Lunde.
Planned for release at the end of 2018, James Cameron’s pet project based on the cult classic manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro will find its way to movie theatres after many years in the background. The source material is an action drama with interesting sci-fi elements relating to the human condition in a futuristic world and its problems. This essay is meant to be a preview of sorts which explores some of the ideas and concepts to inspire an Anthropocene perspective and create a basis of what to look for in the upcoming film. Some minor, early-story spoilers will follow.
The first page of the manga presents the story’s world, as seen above; two cities isolated by wasteland, one above the other. Tiphares is a utopian island hanging in the sky above the desolated landscape left on Earth. Its people are living in bliss, abundance and ignorance. Underneath, born from what is discarded and thrown away and deemed unwanted, is the dystopian city of the Scrapyard (called Iron City in the movie). Reflected in its people, the people of this slum are made of bits and pieces of scrap in form of futuristic beings like cyborgs, robots and androids. It is the trash coming to life. If nothing else, the Scrapyard has richness in diversity.
This divided world is based on the future state of a dead planet, one where nature is dead and the resources are spent. Tiphares hangs in its umbilical cord, a space bridge, connecting it to the richness of the off-world. Its waste brought itself to life to create the Scrapyard. Waste having value as a resource is a topic growing in intensity in our time. What truly funds the science fiction, in my opinion, is how material and humanity has merged through technology. As fellow rejects, the inhabitants of the Scrapyard lives in a sort of agreement. They are all monsters and they have no value over another, other than strength. The strong will act on their will, whether they are classified as this or that. The rough life in the slums plays out as the observers of Tiphares looks down on them in disgust. Them believing in their own human purity.
The cyberpunk themes of the manga, and hopefully to be explored in the movie as well, include the question of what a human is and the value of a being, human or not. This is the basis for the titular Alita’s journey. She was found laying in the scraps as a human brain inside a loose, mechanical head. Having been asleep for a undefined long time and having no memories of her past life, she has nothing when she is awoken by the cyborg doctor Ido. She is given a beautiful, feminine body by him and the role of a pure and fair doll of sorts, or a daughter. Alita enjoys being doted on and cares deeply for Ido, yet her curiosity leads her to follow him into danger and in doing so discovering a latent brutality to be used to protect him. Her frail body breaks asunder doing so as fighting was never her body’s purpose. Ido recognizes that “a warrior’s spirit needs a warrior’s body” . It was not for long the delicate body could hold back her strong personality. Her will to act was too strong. He grants her a body with the power her soul requires. Yet, the body also impose the danger of Alita becoming the war-machine the body originally was created to be.
Agency of both spirit and body is a theme seen throughout the story in different forms. How these act upon one another shapes who the person will be and its social consequences. The technology of this world makes the changeability and plasticity of body and spirit more apparent. Their role in the story is defined and redefined by these elements. It raises the question of what the constant is in this world; in this where humans are no longer are human, and what is not human has become human. What is human? With her physical being being a variable, and both her external and internal worlds being unknown, Alita is met with the existential question of what defines her and where her value as a being lies. Through her journey she holds on to a certainty that it lies in her agency, the dynamic between the will and ability to act.
A Cyborg Manifesto, by Donna J. Haraway, reflects upon a similar world and the relationship between mind and body when bodies are no longer natural, but technological. “Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity. Cyborgs are no exception” . In her text, a cyborg is a created being, something no longer human, but still human, which is reminiscent of the different technological beings of the Scrapyard. The human values for both the individual and socially might change with technology reaching science fiction levels of possibilities. Perhaps are our ways of value-setting already challenged by just the idea alone. Both pieces of work present dynamics between the concept of human and the cyborg, and ask what either of these are. Haraway’s text searches for a value beyond who and what we are; a value of which we might built the utopian world - a world without beginning and without end . Tiphares might not be quite the utopia it is presented as … or it could turn out to be just how a world of cyborgs might be, Haraway. Who are the cyborgs?
Hopefully the movie will inspire questions about Anthropocene themes with twists and turns like the source manga. As a more modern work I look forward to a movie which recognize this perspective and expands upon its possibilities. Whether a technologically right or wrong prediction, Battle Angel Alita presents a possibility for how an exhausted world might turn out where technology has replaced nature. How will humanity cope with redefinition of body and soul in a posthuman world? Is the age of cyborgs, a concept of both Alita and the Manifesto, a loss or a gain for humanity?
An action adventure about a cyborg girl fighting creeps and monsters just might make you to think about what matters.
Kishiro. Battle Angel Alita. Volum 1. Chapter 3. Page 26.
Haraway. A Cyborg Manifesto. 65.
Haraway. A Cyborg Manifesto. 7.
Kishiro, Yukito. Battle Angel Alita (org. jap. Gunnm). Translation by Viz Communication Inc. 1994.
Haraway, Donna J. A Cyborg Manifesto. University of Minnesota Press.1985.