Performance and Selfhood in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’
“Whose body is this?”
Amnesiac cyborg warrior Alita asks it of her adopted father Ido. Her unfamiliarity and discomfort with it has become to much to bear. Salvaged from a scrapyard as a disembodied head and given a new shell, Alita knows instinctively that this body doesn’t belong to her. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t fit. She can’t be her fullest self while using it. She learns that this body was designed for Ido’s late daughter. Alita’s body is not her own.
When Alita wakes up in Ido’s clinic, she has no memory of her former life. Aside from the ability to speak, she has no memory of anything at all. She is as much a blank slate as a person can be, taking in every tiny experience for the first time. She has no real understanding of herself or the world around her.
And yet she knows that her body is wrong. This is perhaps the only thing she knows. She knows it because she doesn’t have to know it. She feels it somewhere deep within herself, some part she can’t access but only feel its reverberations thrumming arrhythmically through her mind. Something is wrong with my body. My body is not my body.
“Whose body is that?”
It’s a question the audience must ask when we look at Alita. Her eyes are not actress Rosa Salazar’s eyes, her arms and legs and torso are not Rosa Salazar’s. But her body clearly isn’t entirely a digital creation. The Alita we see on screen is as much a blend of Salazar’s physicality and computer-generated artistry as the character herself is a combination of a human brain and cybernetic body. Alita the fictional character is no one thing. Alita the constructed image isn’t either.
“Does it bother you,” Alita asks her love interest, “that I’m not completely human?” She’s asking the viewer as well. A supposed “over-reliance” on CG effects tends to be considered a negative, and some academics will tell you that such digital enhancement compromises the integrity of a performance. After all, how much can we attribute to the actor when every detail we see on screen may be the result of interfering animation? Alita: Battle Angel made me wonder: Does it matter?
Salazar’s performance (and I’ll call it hers for the sake of brevity) is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film, period. She is fearlessly emotive, every muscle in her face engaged in a way so many actors are trained to avoid. She’s not restrained by outmoded notions of acting “realism,” and thus she lacks the overcooked stiffness of so many so-called “great” performances. Every movement feels entirely natural and yet (in her first body, and we’ll get to that in a bit) faintly labored, betraying that feeling of unfamiliarity with this form that doesn’t belong to her. Salazar’s Alita is a fully human creation, even in its supposed inhumanity. It doesn’t matter if the physical nuances I’ve noted come from Salazar’s intentions or an effects artist’s. Alita is the product of collaboration, of human mind and digital engineering. She belongs to no one person.
Some time after learning the truth about the body she inhabits, Alita finds a new one. She can’t explain why she’s drawn to it. It’s a subconscious thread suddenly pulled taut. This body she’s found can belong to her. She can live inside it. She can make sense inside it. It can be hers.
She asks Ido to put her inside this new body. He refuses. He doesn’t trust this found form, recognizing it as the shell of an old enemy. Why, he asks Alita, can’t she be happy the way he made her? Why can’t she accept the body he gave her? It doesn’t matter to him that this new body is the right body for her. He won’t let her make that decision for herself.
It’s only after a reckless (one might call it suicidal) decision destroys the body Ido gave her that he agrees to put her in the new one. And when he does, the new one begins to change. It reshapes and reforms itself to, as he puts it, “match her subconscious image of herself.” She doesn’t look like his daughter anymore. For the first time, she looks like herself.
Alita shows off her new body to her friends, celebrating that she finally feels comfortable in her own metal skin. “It’s much more me,” she says. Finally, she achieves symbiosis between her self and her physical form. She is not two separate things, a mind and a body. She is a whole person.
Once Alita gets her new body, Salazar’s performance shifts ever so slightly. Her movement is more graceful, losing the slightly jerky quality she had in her first form. In addition to the righteousness she always radiates, there is now confidence. In addition to her strength, there is control. But it’s not just one big change. There’s an astonishing subtlety to how Salazar’s performance evolves over the course of the film. This is probably as much a testament to the editing as it is to Salazar and the CG team’s skill in creating the character, but that’s another conversation. This performance is constantly in flux, always moving and wavering in ways you may not consciously pick up on until you notice how different she seems from a half-hour prior.
It’s also notable how, as Alita becomes more comfortable with herself, she becomes a performer in her own right. It turns out that Alita’s truest self performs toughness, bravery, and heroism based on the buried memories of her military training. They come back to her in flashes, devoid of context, and she integrates them into her physicality and dialogue on the fly. The film calls into question the notion of a “true self” in this way. When Alita is being “herself,” she is performing, whereas when she doesn’t know herself she is much less guarded and more easygoing. Selfhood, says Alita: Battle Angel, is itself performance. To always act “naturally” is to not have a self at all.
Our selves are what we show to other people. They are how we choose to express, the decisions (or lack of decisions) we make about the physical forms we reside within. Alita becomes Alita over the course of the film. It takes the acquisition of a more fitting body for her to fully realize who she is, and who she wants to be. For Alita to be Alita, she must present herself the way she feels she must. She can’t be herself in the wrong body. Alita: Battle Angel is as moving an exploration of body dysphoria as I’ve ever seen. Salazar’s performance so profoundly understands the awkwardness and pain that come from being disassociated from your physical form, and the euphoria that comes when your body begins to match how you feel about yourself for the first time.
It’s not a wholly natural performance, but this isn’t a film about being comfortable in a natural, unadjusted form. It’s about the joy and necessity of changing yourself, whether with cybernetic tools or computer-generated effects. Alita: Battle Angel is an ode to artificiality for people who must become themselves through active construction. It’s a film for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and asked themselves Alita’s question: “Whose body is this?”