So it’s recently come to my attention that Wikipedia has a list of films featuring powered exoskeletons. Like the big mech loader from Aliens. Every instance of that in a movie. Apparently there’s 23 of them, and I very quickly decided that I needed to be the kind of person who had seen every single one. It was suddenly very important that I become that person.
But then I realised I’d already seen nine of them. My journey through the history of exo-skeletal cinema was half way to completion, right out of the gate. It didn’t feel right. I needed to do a proper study of exoframe cinema. Comprehensive. Rigorous.
I decided to watch the entire list, in order of release date.
I am painfully aware that this will mean re-watching Avatar. I’ve come to terms with it. This is how dedicated I am to the cause. The cause of movies with powered exoskeletons in them.
But for now, let’s start from the beginning. The first ever (according to Wikipedia) feature film involving a powered exoskeleton. It turns out that the use of exoframes in movies has… kind of a dark past?
SKELE-FLICK NO. 1: THE AMBUSHERS (1967)
Yeah… so in order to learn about the history of awesome robo-skeletons in movies, we’re first going to have to learn about Matt Helm.
Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is what happens when a mid-life crisis takes physical form and rampages onto a film lot. A tanned lizard-man who is constantly trying to sleep with everything around him. I’m fairly sure he hits on an alligator at one point. When he’s not trying to have sex, he is looking for a beer. No cocktails, no martinis; Matt Helm is pure Dad Power Fantasy. If this film had been made in 2015, Matt Helm would use the phrase ‘man-cave’ unironically.
The Ambushers tells you exactly what kind of film you’re about to watch in its opening titles. A rapid-fire montage of women in swimwear, dancing around a resort and patiently allowing the filmmakers to document every individual part of their anatomy.
The credits are overlaid with a catchy song about ‘The Ambushers;’ who I originally assumed were some form of all-female mercenary troupe, who lured men in with their various body parts and then… ambushed them. It was only once the film was over that I realised that there had been no band of lady-mercenaries. No one had used the word ‘Ambushers.’ It wasn’t remotely to do with the plot at all. So… Who were the Ambushers?
Then it hit me:
“Oh. It’s women.” It was a song about women. And how they ambush you.
Anyway then we cut to a shot of a UFO, and – that’s right – this is a UFO movie now. It gets stolen almost immediately in order for the plot to happen, so unfortunately we don’t get to spend a lot of time with it, but let’s just take a quick look at the pilot:
This is Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule). She’s a spy and an astronaut and she’s my favourite because no matter how hard this movie tries to make her seem incompetent or helpless, or remove her clothes with lasers, she just keeps being awesome instead.
Four years after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space – and sixteen years before the US sent Sally Ride up there – The Ambushers gives us a female UFO pilot. Of course, Matt Helm soon steps in to say what we’re all thinking:
“What? B-B… But she’s a girl!”
Yes, we know, it’s a fantastical notion – but here’s where the screenwriters really step in to help our imaginations stretch that extra mile. You see, they had to get a woman to pilot the UFO. Its cockpit is flooded with a special kind of radiation that kills all men.
That’s the thing about The Ambushers. It’s all over the place, it’s offensive, it’s a damn long 97 minutes; but there’s these little chunks of insanity that are kind of amazing. There’s Sheila the astronaut and her man-murdering UFO. There are telekinesis rays. There’s a device that makes all the evil henchmen’s pants fall down. There’s a scene where a goon gets fired out of a giant beer bottle and plummets to his death.
There’s a paracinematic appeal to this movie. There are moments of rushed-production-value genius churned in with all the awful.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE POWERED EXO-SKELETONS?
So as you may have guessed, this movie isn’t really about powered exo-skeletons. They are not a core element of the story or even the world in which it takes place: Playboy Narnia. Part of the fun of watching The Ambushers in this context was speculating about how and when freaking power armour was going to appear in this 60’s Dad-joke generator. From what I’d seen so far, scientific research in the world of Matt Helm had been devoted almost entirely to “gadgets that take people’s clothes off” and mustard turtlenecks.
Around halfway through the movie, Matt Helm poses as a fashion photographer so that he and Sheila can get a guided tour of a beer factory. I have no idea if this was in any way related to spying or espionage. Matt Helm immediately starts chugging the free samples, prompting Sheila to roll her eyes and wander off. She turns the corner, and there they are. The first exo-suits in cinema.
They’re… they’re for lifting and transporting barrels of beer. That right there is the thumbprint of Matt Helm, stamped forever into the DNA of external cinematic skeletons. The tour guide explains that they “give an average man the strength of a giant.” He even gives us the first hokey fake-jargon term to explain powered exo-skeletons in a film: “It’s powered by hydro-mechanical servo valves.“
Matt Helm gives the guide a long, dead stare. It’s beginning to dawn on him that this conversation isn’t about beer. “Yeah… wonder what that tastes like.” Then he walks away before this nerd can spring any more lame scientific breakthroughs on him. Yeaaaah. Matt Helm. Too cool for nerds.
Then they leave the beer factory to do some other weird thing.
There were a good 25 minutes where I thought the exo-suits were gone forever. Maybe they were just a prop stolen from some other movie and they wheeled them in so Matt Helm could expand his repertoire of transhumanist sex jokes. Maybe they filmed a big scene with the suits, but had to cut it, possibly in order to fit that scene where Matt Helm strips an unsuspecting woman down to her underwear in a train carriage.
Thankfully, Matt and Sheila do eventually return to the beer factory. By this point I was flagging a little. I didn’t really know what was happening or why. Matt Helm was having an aggressively flaccid gunfight with a security goon. Then Matt Helm and another goon fell into a giant vat of beer, and they took a full two minutes sloowwwly hauling themselves out. Then the first goon started shooting at Matt Helm again, and – Woah! Look who’s here to make the boring go away!
That’s right! The first named character to pilot a powered exoskeleton on the silver screen: Sheila Sommers, looking like she just strolled in off the set of Aliens; and she immediately goes full Donkey Kong on this goon, rolling big barrels of beer down the hallway to push him back.
Matt Helm, desperate not to let a woman steal the spotlight, starts making bad jokes about her aim, despite the fact that he’s… you know, just sitting there, helpless, and not wearing a powered exoskeleton, and she’s doing a pretty good job of keeping him from getting shot.
Sheila shoots him this condescending little smile –
– and gets back to taking names.
It’s… an amazing moment. I’m cheering at my screen, waving my arms around. I am so happy that this is how exo-suits got their start in movies. It’s not Bland Action Man with a Gun Blowing Shit Up. It’s a woman in a male-dominated work environment showing how capable she is with futuristic industrial machinery. Deep inside the standing ovation to the patriarchy that is The Ambushers, there’s this little glimmer of Ellen Ripley, just waiting for the time to strike.
I’m aware that the filmmakers don’t want this to be empowering. The next thing Sheila does is step out of the suit and slip comically on the beer-covered factory floor. As far as they’re concerned she’s just a fumbling side-kick / sex dispenser. But Sheila doesn’t care. She knows her own value. We know her value.
God bless you, Sheila. And God bless cinematic exo-frames!