This is a review of Alita Battle Angel [link] from view of a right below elbow amputee (see title of this blog maybe?). Herewith, I also issue a SPOILER ALERT.
I (ir)regularly review movies (that I come across) that feature (possibly faked or real) arm amputees. Readers of my reviews typically may get this wrong: but I am not reviewing a movie for its overall plausibility, or its overall entertainment aspect, or maybe its overall relation to contemporay culture generally, here. Here, I am specifically asking how the movie relates to the view of arm amputees in society and how it may influence such a view. I ask, what normative angle the film makers take and what normative views they pass on to the viewers. Given that virtually no one nowadays meets an arm amputee in a whole life time, virtually all "knowledge" of arm amputees they possibly have is obtained via media, so these film makers exploit great social power.
The movie stands out from other movies, where amputees are featured - particularly recent ones.
The visuals are superb, the technology that is shown is far from being available, it is clearly science fiction. As it is (from Wikipedia): Alita: Battle Angel is a 2019 American cyberpunk science-fiction action film based on the 1990s Japanese manga series Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro.
And so, we could get Cyborgs as a given here, and so what - but no: there is a distinction in how prosthetic body parts are a separate, set off, demarcated and specific part of the story line. There, the main human actor played character is Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who seems to be the main parts provider for many other movie characters, but first and foremost, for Alita. As Alita happens to be inconvenienced first by having lost her own prosthetic body (that is, torso, extremities, and so on), he first puts her into his late daughter's cyborg body, and after she wrecks that in a memorable bar fight, he puts her into a cyborg body termed "Berserker". Turns out that she was made to live in Berserker bodies and turns out also that she was the one to find, identify and retrieve that piece, she dragged it all the way to Dr. Ido and ultimately caused the tables to turn so she would end up in one. The movie really tells the story of two people, Alita and Dr. Ido, where Alita, basically, gets things her way: she gets to embody the Berseker body - which is the best for her anyway - and the rest of the movie basically is ornament to illustrate the rights and wrongs, the ins and outs and so forth. So really to me this feels far more like a Cyborg science fiction featuring prosthetics and relating to these, than it feels like a good old trash Cyborg war movie where who beats who is the priority. This is actually not so much an action film as a movie about the relation between a prosthetist and a favorite client. And that is truly unusual.
So there are a few interesting and relevant things in this movie, that relate to a normative aspect of this movie plot:
- A - Amputees can also be good. And it is rare to have fantasy or fairy tale like stories feature amputees in the role of a "good" person when mostly, "good" are cast against "bad" characters. Other fairy tale, dystopian or science fiction like movies with "good" amputees are How To Tame Your Dragon, Source Code, Robo Cop, Mad Max Fury Road or The Bad Batch. Many others just feature amputees as villains, confused or troubled characters. And then there are the documentary-type movies where amputation as feature is cast as everyday life type issue, as if it were just a disability.
- B - If you need a prosthetic, tear it off someone else. This movie itself is one big cruel oily amputation fest. The characters chop or tear each others' artificial limbs off all the time. That probably has to do with the fact that in that dystopian future painted within the Alita Battle Angel movie, a large amount of people wear prosthetic bodies and limbs, and there is a great deal of violent if not unlawful appropriation going on.
- C - The movie identifies snug, fast, well integrated prostheses as better than bulky large oversized ones. You could interpret this movie as saying that a snug sturdy fast well integrated body-powered arm would be by far preferable to the electric weight clunk damage and control error fest a typical myoelectric arm imposes on you as a user. The story itself also seems to be staged as sone big Cybathlon-like "Blood Games" competition [link] - as so much that these people do is not relaxed and certainly not friendly but hostile, aggressive and violent. Wearing today's prosthetic arms in, say, a bar fight scene such as in this movie (Alita vs. The Other Head Hunters, see below), a typical modern myoelectric "bionic" arm would probably be entirely toast at the latest after, say, 10 seconds. Even just putting the clothes and equipment on, as a contestant, for a game such as "Motor Ball", will cause so much sweating that the myoelectric control, far below its normally unacceptable error rates [link] will be totally toast way before the actual game starts - Dead In The Tracks so to speak.
- D - A basic rule in the Alita Battle bubble or world is that the Right Of The Stronger rules. Everyone fights for themselves, one has to be faster, better, stronger, more intelligent, better networked, better everything to get somewhere. That is not new - current reality has it that if you are an arm amputee and want a truly functional body powered arm that is comfortable, top robust and so on - you can bet you won't "just get" that by leaving things to themselves. My path to great parts contained bits and pieces of the Battle Angel movie - not gory, not violent, but certainly very active. Once I told the long story of how to build a really good body powered prosthetic arm such as mine and just how large companies react to their parts falling apart, the audience of academics was aghast and one guy said that to have "only the strongest / fittest" get the best setup is against all social support ideas that public insurances would stand for. And, of course he is right. That is why that movie is so great.
- E - If you do not find / have a resourceful and clever mechanic (i.e., prosthetist) and if you cannot finance or bring the relevant parts, you, as a Cyborg, are royally screwed. This is a reality now - and Otto Bock, Ossur and so on let us feel it. That given the low performance of some "bionic" hands are a main reason why that business stalls.
- F - Split-hooks are bad, cheap and lowly. This movie iterates this stupid and offensive theme as others did [link], and it does so technically elegantly and by implication.
- G - Mental presence with fast reactions is good - physical absence is WORLDS better. - The true hero of this movie are neither Alita nor Dr. Ido - the true hero is Nova, the mastermind evil guy who is always physically absent but switches himself to "on" by brainsurfing a guy named Vector, using his body as a host. That seems to be the ultimate winner in this otherwise inescapable back-and-forth-drama between a severely disabled woman / girl (Alita) and her personal prosthetist (Dr. Ido).
So, overall, we do not learn anything new given today's reality. It is a science fiction technology imagination that dates back to the nineties and as we all know, myoelectric technology as introduced by the Russians in the sixties [link] still is what is used for "bionic" arms today - so no wonder we are not a single step further, also seeing as if research never managed to improve myoelectric control error rates in over 40 (fourty, yes) years of research [link]. The same transhumanist confusion - anthropomorphic or better? [link] -, the same 24/7 prosthetist repair mechanic availability in context of body scheme integration problems [link], the same useless disdain for split hooks that we already have [link] despite these being MORE MODERN than prosthetic hands [link], and the same "stronger wins" mentality that we societally suffer from already, are embodied in this movie. Great visuals though. Telling a mediocre if not boring bottom line story with the most glorious animations will certainly lend these attitudes and views more credibility. It won't improve prosthetics one bit, even though Open Bionics [link] went at it again (see below), but then, that aspect of real life seems to be far beyond repair anyway [link].
Storyline with illustrations
All images Copyright (C) 20th Century Fox
Alitas remains are found by Dr. Ido in a scrapyard while he looks for parts there. I mean, which entrepreneurial prosthetist nowadays routinely searches on scrapyards for useful spare parts?
Dr. Ido is assisted by nurse Gerhad, who uses a number of prosthetic terminal devices on her left arm.
As we are told or shown, maybe, the relevant parts that Alita needs to live on are still there - mainly, head, face, brain and neck.
Dr. Ido places Alita into the prosthetic body of his late daughter. That body looks beautifully crafted and delicate.
The body itself is clearly a work of art, it is a very delicate looking piece.
Not everyone gets these superb parts - and as we see, a street customer that has troubles with his right arm only gets a quick fix with what looks like a split hook. So, this movie like almost everyone on this planet furthers the spitting on split-hooks [link]. I assume that James Cameron does such just for shits and giggles, nothing personal - but we do not know really that about him.
Here is a prosthetic arms wearing guitar player.
He has two left hands and also, his right arm socket has a cut out "F-hole" [link]. Jeez.
Some people get their parts taken by thieves, and really, scavenging people rather than scrapyards seems to be a thing in this movie.
The ex-wife of Dr. Ido recognises that prosthetic body.
Alita is not a girl that sits around though. She fights well, as someone that fought as a professional before, and the interesting fight scenes show that.
Alita damages a huge fight robot.
Some repairs necessary, good to have a mechanic ready at all times. In fact, I have been saying that before this movie came along: for a prosthesis to be truly embodied, 24/7 repair facilities are a must - otherwise you will cause more harm than you will realize [link].
Also the big fighter robot needs repairs. Just as Alita, he also relies on a 24/7 repair garage. Such repair availability does not exist on this world, not anywhere, not that we know of.
Here, another guy got all his prosthetic parts removed violently.
Meanwhile, Alita finds a Berserker body in an abandoned space ship. She feels drawn towards it as that was the type of suit she had used to professionally fight before.
She begs Dr. Ido to mount the Berskerer suit that she found on her. But Dr. Ido declines.
No problem to put the old cyborg body to good use while wrecking it: Alita goes to a bar where she teases a few hardened bounty hunters. She then kicks into their faces and so on. She is a superb fighter, and here she delivers a first kick (not even a roundhouse kick) into the face of a cyborg guy. Chuck Norris was nothing in comparison.
She also flips a sharp sword from the ground up, then jams it into the wall. By kicking it. Definitely way past Chuck Norris.
However she ends up totally torn up, Dr. Ido once again has to retrieve her, and, eh, repair her. Not that we did not see that coming.
And so Alita gets her Berserker body fitted.
She is happy and demonstrates a bit of gymnastics right in Dr. Ido's living room.
Hand-stand on a single finger, no problem.
She can also provide this blue flame from her finger. Because, hey, Berserker body.
She then goes on to play "Motorball". Sounds logical - once you have a Berserker body, everything else looks like something ready to be hacked to pieces [link].
All the while, her true nemesis remains Nova - a remote person that, through some neurological uplink, can inhabit another guy's body. That guy is called Vector and to make the inhabitation by Nova more convenient for movie watchers to "see", Vector's eyes turn blue whenever Nova gets to inhabit Vector.
Here, Vector proudly shows the organs he has kept of someone - so he is scavenging both cyborgs and human people for parts. Brr.
Obviously, now, Alita has to fight against the now-repaired large robot fighter once again.
She basically cuts him to pieces. Apparently that is what one does there. Off come the tentacles.
The final attack leap to cut the robot in half.
Now cutting the robot in half. Good versus evil, as we seem to be lead to believe.
After that cut, time for the big fighter robot to fall apart.
Last but not the least, Alita speaks to Nova as evidenced by Vector's blue eyes. Nova really is the secret winner of this epic Cybathlon: Blood wars type contest - eternally going after other Cyborg's limbs must get old some time. Brain surfing other beings, inhabitating their body for a short time, just to converse, is taking telephony or remote chess to a whole new level though.
Prosthetic attempts to embody some of the movie's magic
The statement by Open Bionics says that "Open Bionics has teamed up with director James Cameron and his new blockbuster, Alita: Battle Angel, to surprise 13-year-old bionic girl Tilly Lockey with brand new bionic arms at the movie's world premiere in London. Science fiction comes to life..! " (see: https://www.openbionics.com/alita). According to another site, "Once released to the market, the design will be called Hero Arm and, according to the website of Open Bionics, will be “the world’s first clinically approved 3D-printed bionic arm, with multi-grip functionality and empowering aesthetics”. (see: https://www.technology.org/2019/02/28/tilly-lockey-receives-bionic-arms-made-in-collaboration-with-the-production-team-of-alita-battle-angel/). While that is all nice and sweet, these are still 2019 myoelectric arms.
According to one other review (see: https://www.flickeringmyth.com/2019/04/everyone-is-human-prosthetics-in-alita-battle-angel/), "it can be argued that it is a two-hour, $200 million treatise on prosthetics". It is funny then just how much of human essence one can ignore if ever the goal was to make this such a film. " Alita co-producer Jon Landau came out with a novel position when asked about diversity in film. “We work on stuff creatively,” he says. “When you push something to the forefront, I think it has much less of an impact than when you play it in the background.” As such, the prosthetic agenda of Alita: Battle Angel does not come bluntly, but is instead an inbuilt part of the film ( ...) As Landau mentioned, “…at the end, as we talked about, we want to make movies that, that affect people, and have an impact on their lives, and how they see the world, as they move forward.”
Another review (see: https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/02/welcome-to-the-cyber-world-the-real-world-tech-behind-alita-battle-angel/) states the sober fact that "Alita: Battle Angel is struggling in the domestic box office this weekend for a variety of reasons. That's a shame, because in addition to being a genuinely entertaining, action-packed adaptation of the original manga, it offers a reasonable vision of what cyber-technology in the future could look like." - That, in fact, is a rather hard indicator that we may be in fact actually looking more at a disability science fiction movie than a Cyborg warrior movie.