How the Human Face brings about Social Acceptance in Alita: Battle Angel
by Eila Trenel
Alita: Battle Angel (Cameron & Rodriguez, 2019) presents a wide variety of cybernetic technologies, ranging from replicative to augmentative. The former aims to recreate the aesthetic and capabilities of the human body, while the latter forgoes both, instead augmenting the user’s capabilities past human limits. This spectrum of technology results in cyborgs – called “hard bodies”, in contrast to the humans, who are called “meat bodies” – that look like anything, from passably human to monstrous. However, despite the emphasis on bodily functionality in the text, all individuals have retained their human faces. The humans have organic faces, while hard bodies have artificial faces powered by wires, the external aesthetic of which perfectly replicates organic ones. This level of duplication exhibited in the latter group is not afforded to any other human body part, indicating the unique importance of the human face in this text.
I believe that human faces in Alita: Battle Angel are consistently and intentionally unmodified as they provide a visual and external commonality between different groups in their community. Furthermore, the human face also influences each individual’s sense of self-identity, allowing them to believe that regardless of any outward changes, they remain entirely “human” at their core.
The Diversity of Cybernetics versus the Consistency of the Face
The best depiction of augmentative cybernetic modifications is provided by Motorball players. Motorball is a violent mix of rugby and car racing, where the goal is to either carry the ball across the finish line, or be the last player standing (Motorball, 2019). The success – and survival – of the players depends on their individual abilities with respect to each other. As such, these individuals have no qualms with giving up their humanoid shape in favour of mechanical improvements that enhance their physical capabilities; a pair of wheels instead of legs, saw blades instead of hands, and even a built-in flail. Yet, despite these adaptations, each of the motorball players retains a human face.
It is strange that even the Motorball players – the ultimate examples of individuals without attachment to a recognisable humanoid form – have left their human faces untouched. Surely, a player’s chances of winning could be improved by mechanical eyeballs with telescope-like zoom abilities or other face-related modifications, so why have these not been implemented?
Some may argue that facial preservation was done for simple reasons – for example, perhaps the technology required to make such fine modifications is just not easily accessible, even to those who dedicate themselves to cybernetic enhancements.
However, we know that this facial preservation is intentional through the character of Zapan, an infamous Hunter-Warrior – a group of state-sanctioned bounty hunters who enforce the laws in the text (Hunter-Warrior, 2019).
Zapan actively boasts how much money he invests in his face, and faces (pun intended) no ridicule for what our real-world society would consider unattractive levels of vanity. This clearly indicates the status of the human face in this world, the intentional maintenance of which is not only important, but expected.
To understand the significance of the face, one must first consider another text where the human face is less prevalent. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War (1979) centers around “Bioforms”, genetically modified cyborg-animals trained to be weapons of war, who display levels of intelligence, empathy, and competency that rivals that of humans. The book focuses on the philosophical and sociological problem of where these bioforms stand in human society. Though they look like animals and are treated as such by most humans, their elevated consciousness demands that they be treated with dignity and respect, as individuals and not as things to be owned.
There are very few differences between Dogs of War’s bioforms and Alita: Battle Angel’s hard bodies. Both are externally entirely separated from the human form, with the former being animalistic and the latter being more monstrous. Despite these outward dissimilarities, both bioforms and hard bodies both possess the same level of complex thought and nuanced emotion as the “normal” humans of their respective worlds. As such, one would expect that bioforms and hard bodies are treated similarly by their human counterparts – and yet, this is not the case.
Although the bioforms eventually gain legal rights, they are never able to peacefully participate in the activities shared by the humans of society, such as spending some time in a park. They are continuously regarded as the “Other”, no matter how much acceptance they garner. In sharp contrast, nobody blinks an eye at the monstrous bodies of the Motorball players. The position of these hard bodies as contributing members of society is never questioned, and their sheer existence in public places is not only tolerated, but accepted.
There is one thing that separates the bioforms and the hard bodies: the human face. Since the humans in both texts are presented similarly, I believe that the presence (or absence) of a human face is exactly what causes this stark disparity in treatment, as it reduces the “Othering” of the bioforms and the hard bodies by humans. “Othering” is defined as “stigmatising a difference – real or imagined – presented as a negation of identity and thus a motive for potential discrimination” (Staszak, 2008). In both texts, there is an undeniable difference between the physical manifestations of the humans and bioforms and hard bodies respectively. The human face creates a similarity between the disparate groups in terms of external appearance, thus reducing the disparities between them. I believe that this is why the human face in Alita: Battle Angel was preserved, and therefore it allows hard bodies to remain relatable and acceptable to the humans in their society.
Alita, the Martian: The Effects of Symbolic Interactionism
Unfortunately, Alita herself does not fit into this relationship between humans, hard bodies, and faces. Alita begins the movie as an amnesiac, having been rebuilt by cybernetic surgeon Dr Ido, who found her decapitated head in a scrapyard.
Through a series of flashbacks, she gradually remembers her past. As it turns out, Alita is not from Earth – instead, she is from Mars, and was a soldier for the invading forces in the largest war in this society’s history (The Fall, 2019). It is unclear whether or not Alita’s organic parts are Martian or human (that is, having migrated from Earth to Mars). Regardless, Alita is not – and was never – part of Earth’s society.
Alita’s reaction to this realisation is not one of sudden insecurity about her position in society. She does not exhibit a Pinocchio-like desire to become a “real human”, and shows no guilt for having had a hand in decimating the planet hundreds of years ago. I would argue that this unlikely reaction is due to her experiences upon waking up for the first time as an amnesiac, which ties into the concept of symbolic interactionism, developed by philosopher and sociologist George Herbert Mead in the 1920s (Dingwall, 2001).
The audience’s first introduction to Alita is also her first introduction to herself. In the scene, she wakes up, covering her mouth as she yawns – then shoots upright at the realisation that she has hands. Going to a floor-length mirror, Alita spends a few silent moments contemplating her body (Alita Wakes, 2021).
This is, ostensibly, her first experience, and the very first time she’s able to form any sort of opinion about herself. Therefore at this moment, much like a baby, she is a blank slate with very little sense of her self-identity.
Apart from Dr Ido and Nurse Gerhad, the people who put her back together, the first human Alita meets is her romantic interest-to-be, Hugo. Her initial encounter with him sets the precedent for all the upcoming humans she meets:
Hugo: I gotta admit, I’ve never seen someone challenge a Centurion like that before.
Hugo offers a hand to Alita, who is crouched on the ground. She takes it, and he pulls her to her feet, struggling.
Hugo: Whoa, you’re heavy! I mean –
Hugo does a double-take, looking at Alita.
Hugo: Oh! You’re a cyborg!
Alita looks down, embarrassed. It is clear she does not know how she should react.
Hugo: Sorry. I was just admiring your hand. Can I see?
Alita stares at him in silence for a moment, before sheepishly offering a hand for his inspection. Hugo takes it.
Hugo: Wow. It’s really nice work. Did Doc Ido do it?
Alita: He built all of me. Except my core – that’s mine.
Hugo: Whoa. He did a really great job.
Alita Meets Hugo, 2019
Hugo’s reaction of wonder and awe upon realising that Alita is a cyborg shows her that she is not unwelcome, and that since her highly replicative external appearance fits perfectly into the “perceived ideal” of this society – that is, human-passing – she will not be subject to “stigmatisation by appearance” (McGrouther, 1997). This acceptance subconsciously influences Alita’s self-identity, and through the theory of symbolic interactionism, embeds a deep sense of belonging into her. Symbolic interactionism is best defined by sociologist Herbert Blumer (1969), who specifies that:
The term ‘symbolic interaction’ refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings. The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or “define” each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. (p. 79)
As such, Hugo’s positive and accepting reaction to Alita’s cyborg-ness is interpreted by Alita as affirming her position in society, and not just as a one-off event. This understanding is further in all of her interactions, as nobody she meets makes a fuss about her cyborg-ness. Alita’s face – which conforms to the expectations of her society – allows her to partake in symbolic interaction as a human being with other individuals, affirming her internal sense of self-identity as inherently a part of this society. Therefore, when she realises that she was never originally part of Earth’s society, as a human or as a hard body, she is not thrown into an identity crisis about her “belonging” on Earth.
On a wider scale, this concept of symbolic interactionism extends to every individual in the text. As previously mentioned, “othering” is reduced by the commonality of the human face. Evidently, the face, which has remained unchanged for eons, has been assigned as a symbol for the human identity by society, which is why it is uniquely effective at minimising “othering” to such a great extent. This phenomenon extends past the world of Alita: Battle Angel. In real life, too, we automatically associate the human face with a living individual to be treated with dignity (Koch, 2015).
Through symbolic interactionism, the human face has been given a deeper meaning, becoming asynchronous with the concept of human identity itself. As such, and especially in the text, each individual possessing a human face inherently self-identifies as human at their core, regardless of any extent of external modifications, which is why the society in Alita: Battle Angel is so willing to overlook the inhumanity of even the most monstrous of hard bodies.
Overall, despite their augmentative and replicative cybernetic enhancements, the individuals in the text have intentionally preserved a human face, as it allows cyborgs to be one with human society, instead of being discriminated against and “othered” for their differences. As such, the human face becomes not only an external and visual signifier, but also a symbol of humanity in Alita: Battle Angel.
Adrian Tchaikovsky. (1979). Dogs of War. London: Head of Zeus.
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D A McGrouther (1997). Facial Disfigurement: The Last Bastion of Discrimination. BMJ vol. 314, p. 991. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2126436/pdf/9112836.pdf
Herbert Blumer. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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Robert Rodriguez (2021, 23 May). Alita Wakes Up Scene | Alita: Battle Angel (2019). Youtube, uploaded by BEST MOVIE MOMENTS. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ln3lWP7biz8
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