There are many iconic moments in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but the one that has stuck with me all my years is the sequence in which Martin Sheen’s character Willard does drunken martial arts in his underwear. This is a man who has become a tool of his government, a machine of perpetual and incoherent war. He goes where he is sent and he kills whoever he is ordered to terminate. The sequence is disturbing and pathetic and it culminates in Willard punching a mirror, shattering it, and cutting his hand open. We are witnessing a man grapple with the horror of endless, meaningless violence. And we learn that the only way he can actually live with himself, the only way he can carry himself with some level of decorum, is to return to war. Because war is the only thing he was ever really good at. No man who accepts himself as a weapon to be used by powers he cannot fully comprehend can stand his own reflection for long.
There is a similar sequence in Alita: Battle Angel, the new film from director Robert Rodriguez and writer/producer James Cameron, based on the manga Gummn by Yukito Kishiro.
Alita, a centuries old cyborg with a brand new body and severe amnesia, performs an elaborate martial arts maneuver in front of a mirror. Here, the shame and misery present in Willard’s breakdown is absent. This is an empowering moment for our hero. Alita is a machine of war, engineered for one purpose: to terminate her enemies. But war has not consumed her. At the culmination of her lethal dance, at the moment right before her fist would make contact with the fragile glass of the mirror, she stays her hand. She doesn’t need to destroy her own reflection. Because Alita will no longer fight any war but her own. She, and she alone, gets to decide what gets broken next.