Showing posts with label Zalem. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Zalem. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Angel from Beyond Sent to Fight the Evil One - The Religious Themes of Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel has deep religious themes, rooted in the Bible and some apocryphal writings, like the Book of Enoch. Below is my attempt at understanding the religious imagery of the film. I am indebted for some of my ideas to the analysis of YouTuber David Stewart, but I take a somewhat different approach, and I focus much more on New Testament parallels. I should also say that I have not read the original manga series, nor did I have any prior familiarity with the story of Alita. My analysis is rooted in what I observed in the film. (Please note that this article contains spoilers.)

The key story in the background of Alita is the war among the angels. In the Bible, we see references to a war in Heaven. The angels, who are created before humankind, are offered an eternal existence in Heaven, imbued with God's love and light. But Lucifer rejects God's love and wants to set himself up as an authority in place of God. He rebels against God and persuades many of the other angels to join his rebellion. As Lucifer and his followers begin their war, the faithful angels fight back and drive them out of Heaven.

The fallen angels are driven to Hell, a place where they are separated, through their own choice, from the love of God, which would have given them eternal peace, joy, and fulfillment. In Hell, they are filled with anger, hatred, bitterness, and an utter sense of restlessness, an utter lack of fulfillment. They now seek to thwart God's plans. They want to mar the new creation he is about to bring into being, the human race.

Taking the form of a serpent, Lucifer succeeds in corrupting Adam and Eve, the first parents of humanity, causing them to fall from grace, which brings about a rift between humanity and God. Once this rift happens, the distance between humanity and God keeps widening as human beings become more and more mired in self-destructive behavior. The fallen angels, who have caused the fall of humanity, now have dominion over human history. Their dominion is to continue until the coming of the Messiah, who will defeat their power and liberate humanity from the bondage of sin.

While Alita does not follow the above framework in its entirety, the film does borrow some key elements. The sky cities hovering over the Earth represent the dominion of the fallen angels. Against them were arrayed the forces of U.R.M., or the United Republics of Mars, who represent the holy angels of God. In the war that took place three hundred years before the start of the film, the army of U.R.M attacked the sky cities, with the goal of destroying their power. They succeeded in causing all of the sky cities to fall to Earth, and thereby be destroyed, except for one, Zalem.

Zalem, ruled over by a mysterious figure known as Nova, continues to have dominion, specifically over Iron City, the post-apocalyptic ruin of a once mighty metropolis, where today people scavenge off the ruins of their collapsed civilization. Order is kept in the city by a group of Hunter-Warriors, or bounty hunters, who are to kill for money anyone branded as wanted by the authorities, and who are supported in their grizzly work by giant military robot machines known as Centurions. The inhabitants of Iron City supply Zalem with various products taken up through sky elevators, and they live in the hope that one day they themselves may be admitted into the city in the sky. But entry into Zalem is not permitted, except for those who become champions in the brutal spot of Motorball.

The word "Zalem" is a variation on "Salem," which has a great deal of significance in the Bible. Salem is the city of the priest and king Melchizedek, who blesses Abraham, the father of the chosen people (Genesis 14:18–20). Salem is also the root of the word "Jerusalem," which becomes the capital of the Israelites. In the New Testament, the New Heaven and Earth to be created by God is described as the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2).

In the film, Zalem is not the biblical heavenly realm, but a false heaven run by the figure of Nova. "Nova" is a word connoting bright light, as in a star going nova. The character of Nova represents Lucifer, whose name literally means "light-bearer," since he was a mighty being of light, before his fall. Zalem then is a false heaven ruled by the leader of the fallen angels.

The inhabitants of the Earth, symbolized by the inhabitants of Iron City, have been deceived into thinking that Zalem is the their salvation, and many of them are willing to do anything to be able to enter the sky city. We see that Hugo, Alita's boyfriend, is mired in a life of crime and betrayal in hopes of one day earning enough credits to make it to Zalem. But the one way to reach that coveted realm is, as mentioned above, to become champion in the bloody sport of Motorball. In the game of Motorball only those can win who alter their bodies to become more and more like monstrous cyborgs, and who harden their hearts to become more and more cruel in their willingness to defeat the competition.

Thus, only those who become thoroughly dehumanized can hope to reach Zalem. In this dynamic, we can see the operation of the fallen angels. They present a false heaven for people to aspire to, which people can only enter by becoming less and less human. In this way, the fallen angels continue their destruction of humanity, to which they committed themselves even before the creation of the human race by God.

Another important element in the background of Alita is the story of the Nephilim. The Nephilim are mentioned only briefly in the Bible (Genesis 6:1–4, Numbers 13:32-33), but much more is said about them in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. As the story goes, some of the fallen angels, also called the Watchers, came down to Earth to mate with human women, and they produced giants as offspring, called the Nephilim. The Bible does not go into detail with regard to the fate of the Nephilim, except that they became great warriors. The Book of Enoch offers a much longer narrative.

In the backstory of Alita, Dr. Ido and Dr. Chiren are a married couple of highly talented cyborg doctors, who appear to be two Watchers, or fallen angels, who have come down from Zalem. Once on Earth, they occupied themselves with creating cyborgs for the Motorball tournaments. While they did not physically mate with humans, they made offspring by transforming human beings into giant cyborg warriors, thereby advancing Nova's scheme of dehumanizing the human race.

However, after the murder of his daughter at the hands of a cyborg he created, Ido repents of his involvement with the Motorball and dedicates himself to helping humans by using his cyborg doctor skills to provide prosthetic limbs for those who have been maimed in some way. As a part of his repudiation of his past, he removes a diamondlike mark from his forehead, which in worn by all those who live in Zalem and is reminiscent of the mark of the beast in the Book of Revelations (Revelation 13:11–18). By contrast, Chiren continues with her dark machinations. She keeps her mark, and the two become estranged.

At the start of the story, Ido is scavenging through a junk yard made up of electrical waste thrown out from Zalem above, and he comes across the head and core of a cyborg, who is still alive. He reconstructs her, initially giving her the body he had intended for his crippled daughter. In time the girl, whom he names Alita after his deceased daughter, turns out to be a warrior cyborg from the United Republics of Mars, who had been on a mission to destroy Nova.

Ido refers to Alita as an angel, and her name means "winged" in in Spanish. In terms of the angelic war that forms the backdrop to the story of the film, Alita is one of the good angels, who had come from beyond the sky cities, to battle the fallen angels who have sought dominion over humanity.

First, however, Alita must grow and learn about herself and the world where she now finds herself. Here the film departs significantly from today's movie convention, whereby the young heroes are shown to mature and solve problems, not by learning from the wisdom of their parents and other elders, but by rebelling against authority figures. By contrast, Alita learns to trust Ido, whom she comes to see as her father. Nor is Ido depicted according to today's Hollywood convention, which seeks to attack all father figures as either useless or abusive. Ido is genuinely loving and caring toward Alita, whom he sees as his daughter from the beginning. Though at first he is somewhat overprotective (which is understandable considering how his first daughter died), in time he realizes that he cannot stand in the way of Alita's destiny to be a battle angel, from which point forward, he supports her development as a warrior wholeheartedly. The bond that develops between the two is tender, wholesome, and beautiful to see in a movie made in today's cultural landscape.

As the film unfolds, we gradually learn the true significance of Alita's character. As David Stewart points out, the figure of Alita has some messianic resonances in the story. She is a higher being, who takes on a human body. After her earthly body is destroyed, she receive a new, perfected body from above. In the New Testament, we see that Christ is God incarnate, who has taken on a human body. After his crucifixion, he resurrects from the dead and receives a new, perfected body that is still physical, but no longer bound by our limitations. The parallels between Alita and Christ only go only so far, but clearly Alita is meant to be seen as a messianic figure, who has come for the salvation of the inhabitants of Iron City.

Throughout the course of the film, Alita gradually grows into her redemptive role. On her first day out in her new world, when she as yet has no memories of her past, she instinctively saves a puppy from a Centurion, a military machine used to keep order in the city, foreshadowing that her whole identity is going to be about saving others.

Later in the film, she literally offers her heart to her boyfriend, Hugo, in order to help him raise enough money to leave the Iron City and move to Zalem. Though at the time her action is based on imperfect knowledge of what Zalem is, her action is born of the self-giving love that characterizes her. In fact, the offer of her heart has resonances of the Catholic devotional belief that Jesus offers his Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin Mary, her Immaculate Heart to the faithful as conduits of divine grace.

Later in the movie, Alita exerts all of her power to save Hugo from Zapan, a corrupt Hunter-Warrior, who has tracked him down and is determined to kill him. The bounty hunter has framed Hugo for murder and has now wounded him. When Alita arrives, Zapan tells her that Hugo is wanted for murder and also reveals to her that Hugo has led a life of crime, jumping cyborgs and stealing parts from them. Alita has two choices: she can let Zapan kill Hugo, or she has to kill Hugo herself. Any attempt to rescue Hugo will be seen as a violation of the laws of the city, which would make her a wanted criminal.

She escapes from Zapan for the moment by taking Hugo inside an old abandoned Catholic church, hoping to find some solution to the problem. Inside the church, we see quick glimpses of statues of saints, as well as a statue of Jesus. Hugo now confesses his sins to Alita, and she responds with loving forgiveness. The scene, set inside a Catholic church, is reminiscent of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where the penitent confesses his sins to a priest, and the priest gives absolution. Hugo finds redemption through Alita's self-sacrificial love.

At the same time, his life is still in danger. There seems be no way out of the trap that Zapan had set for them. However, unbeknownst to the two, someone is watching them. The whole scene is witnessed by Cherin, who now has a perfect opportunity to capture Alita. But she decides not to do so. Her heart is touched by witnessing such pure love, and, as her husband had done years before, she now decides to turn away from her evil ways. She reveals her presence and offers a solution to Alita.

The solution requires some drastic action. We do not see the details, but we can infer what happens. Alita has to decapitate Hugo, thereby killing him and fulfilling the law. However, she resuscitates Hugo and gives him new life by connecting his head to her powerful heart, until he can be placed inside a new cyborg body, which Ido provides for him later. The saving of Hugo has resonances of Christian baptismal theology, in that in Christian faith, we must die to our old self in order to be able to be reborn through the cleansing of baptism.

As the story continues, we learn that Cherin must pay a high price for her conversion. Nova no longer sees her as an ally. Her brain is removed from her body and is kept alive artificially, so that she can be sent to Zalem for as yet undisclosed purposes. The price she pays is reminiscent of the Christian concept of the cost of discipleship. Those who embrace the Gospel, must be prepared to encounter hatred for their faith and might have to pay with their lives for their commitment to Christ. But Christ also says not to be afraid of those who can destroy only the body, but to fear those who can destroy both the body and soul (Matthew 10:28). Cherin's body has been destroyed, and her mind will soon be shipped off to Zalem, for reasons we do not yet know. But although Nova seems to have triumphed over her, Cherin's soul is now free of the bondage of darkness. Even if they destroy her mind, she can still remain free from evil in her soul.

In the penultimate sequence of the movie, Hugo attempts to climb the space elevators to Zalem to escape from Iron City, because he fears the bounty hunters. Alita runs after him to stop him, but Nova activates one of the defense mechanisms of the sky city, which cuts Hugo into pieces. Alita attempts to save him from plunging to his death, but she is not able to do so. However, just before Hugo falls, he thanks Alita for saving him. Even though she could not save his physical life, she saved him spiritually, by helping him turn away from evil. In fact, "Hugo" means "soul." Alita saved Hugo by saving his soul.

As the movie concludes, Alita has won the Motorball championship. She now has secured passage to Zalem. She raises her sword toward the sky city, even as Nova watches from above. The battle of the angels is set to continue. Alita, the good angel sent from above, is going to battle Nova, the fallen angel, who has enslaved Iron City. The battle will be for the salvation of humanity.


Photo Credit: The photos included in this article are promotional stills circulating on the Internet.