Alita Battle Angel: part angel, part demon, part human?
Image credit: 20th Century Fox
Alita is an engagingly stroppy teenager, looking for love and identity and not hindered by her rather violent streak. But is she human?
I’m not gonna lie, as the young people say, there are loopholes in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’. The sort of loopholes that the engineering mind is better switching off from if it is to enjoy the film. For instance, given that we are fairly confident that there is currently no meaningful life on Mars, how did it manage to evolve into a civilisation of such sophistication by the 23rd century that it was able to send an invasion force to Earth? Or that one of the Martian spaceships should come to life 300 years after crashing into a swamp? Or even that Alita, a devastating tornado of a cyborg, should be dumped into the trash when her abilities, and presumably therefore her value, are so immense. However, I switched off from the loopholes and did thoroughly enjoy the film.
It is about a discarded cyborg with amnesia that is recovered from a scrapheap by Dr Ido, who is a cross between a doctor and a mechanic. His thing is fixing cyborgs and he does a particularly fine job with this one, which he names Alita after his deceased daughter (there are a few emotional heartstrings that are unashamedly twanged in this flick).
A cyborg is a ‘cybernetic organism’, named by scientists (rather than science-fiction writers) Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline nearly 60 years ago. Cyborgs are built of both organic and biomechatronic components, and in the case of this film the cyborgs typically had a human core – brain and heart – and this outsized tadpole-like subassembly would have all the necessary biomech fitted around it.
Our Big Screen question this month is: could this core be self-sustaining? And for how long? Perhaps the most obvious point here is that new techniques for transporting transplant hearts, which use a warm blood system, have extended their out-of-body life to over a day, whereas until very recently the only option was a cold-storage technique that requires transplant within four hours. In other words, hearts are not very good at surviving outside the body.
The necessary fluid flowing through hearts in ‘Alita’ looks more like the bright blue E-number-enriched fizzy drinks that send children up walls rather than human blood and clearly this brings oxygen into the system. In fact, in the absence of any other vital organs there is a considerable amount of work to be done by the mechanics.
Consider the complexities of the human body; we still don’t know all the functions of the liver, for example, let alone be able to replicate it in enough detail to provide any more than a blood filter. A machine that could maintain a healthy heart for at least 300 years (we are told Alita participated in the Martian war) seems a bit far-fetched.
The brain seems less demanding. All it requires is oxygen and glucose. Starved of these, however, the brain rapidly ceases to function – a couple of minutes of a head being bodyless is enough to prevent the brain from being rescued as a fully functioning organ. While this was another loophole that needs to be ignored during the film, the notion of a human being heart and soul, or at least heart and brain, is quite a tidy engineering solution. By effectively reducing a person to a human brain, which in turn is essentially a computer, albeit with emotions (could that be AI?), ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ paints a simplistic picture of what it is to be human. It conveniently bypasses the great complexity of the human body and our lack of understanding of so much of it – both in terms of what it does and how it does it.
To examine another aspect of our high-performance superhero, could Alita’s mechatronics be so lightning fast and sinuous as to avoid the weaponry of enemies in Matrix-like fashion? Tom Otis, professor of neuroscience and chief scientific officer, Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, says: “Conceivably, if you had an exoskeleton, then you could potentially read out the signals from the brain and potentially have superhuman performance in the robotics.”
This super-human performance only goes so far. It may be strong and flexible, but would it be fast enough for Alita in full Battle Angel mode? The mind’s neuron activity to control the exoskeleton might only be 3-4ms, but the response time of the biomechanics is likely to be more like 10ms, approximately 20 times faster than human muscle response times. A bullet travelling at 400 metres per second would therefore have travelled 6m before any evasive action could take place and even then human response times to visual stimulus – and we are still talking about a human brain – is typically a quarter of a second, by which time that bullet has travelled 100m. Elon Musk said recently: “In a few years, that bot [a robot featured in a video] will move so fast you’ll need a strobe light to see it.” Maybe, but it won’t be fast enough to dodge a bullet.
Apparently, this film took many years to finally be made, mainly because producer James Cameron was preoccupied by other projects, notably ‘Avatar.’ ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ leaves much about the heroine’s past, and indeed that of the planet, yet to be revealed, which is frustrating and intriguing in equal measures. However that, along with the deliberate ‘watch-me-go-now’ ending, means a sequel or even a franchise is in the offing, assuming this first part brings in the big bucks. I hope so because there is that feeling that 90 per cent of a fine story is yet to be told – and the film looks magnificent, particularly the action sequences. My advice is ignore the loopholes and enjoy.
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