Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Exo-Man (1977)

Last month we looked at The Ambushers, which while being the first film to feature an exo-suit, wasn’t actually about exo-suits. It was about sexism. Our next taste of feature length exo-skeletal action came ten years later; and while it may be a made-for-TV Marvel rip-off, it is at least very much about the powered exoskeletons. The people who made this movie were really really excited about powered exoskeletons. And that’s what we’re all about here! Let’s do this!

CINEMATOFRAME #2: EXO-MAN (1977)

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Now, I want to talk about this movie and what it’s doing with its exo-suit, but first I want to talk about the concept of the human soul. What is it that makes us ‘us’? What happens to that part of us when we die? Do we go to Heaven? Do we come back as something else? Do we come back as trees? Do we not come back as trees?

Because look, I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure the star of this 1977 TV movie is Keanu Reeves.

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I hear what you’re saying: ‘They look completely different, what are you talking about?’ But there’s something about his face. Or the thing behind his face. Something about the way this man moves or talks or holds himself… it’s Keanu Reeves. Watch this movie and then tell me you didn’t spend the whole run-time calling his character “Disco Keanu.” You can’t. It’s impossible.

And don’t even get me started on Hispanic Heath Ledger.

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ANYWAY THE MOVIE:

Exo-Man is the story of a young, athletic physics professor named Keanu Reeves. He cracks jokes in his lectures, he banters charmingly with his girlfriend, he takes time out of his busy science schedule to help Heath Ledger get a bank loan. Keanu Reeves is the paragon of human decency – the American ideal!

His only weakness is his apparent addiction to jogging; which is a shame, because eventually the local crime syndicate gets sick of all this athleticism and sends some goons to paralyse him from the waist down.

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Exo-Man is dedicated to being a nuts-and-bolts superhero origin story, which is weird because it’s actually way more interesting when it wends into pulpy science-fiction. All the human drama in this film is put there to explain and justify the invention of the exo-suit, to the point where it’s easy to imagine the film being written backwards, starting from the words ‘sick power armour’ and then building every scene around justifying that premise.

Despite this, the filmmakers refuse to rush Keanu Reeves’ emotional journey. They know that audiences need characters to care about, so they put a lot of effort into setting up the hero’s awesome life, and then taking it all away from him. It’s no tour de force, and it’s definitely slow in places, but I have to admit a certain satisfaction in watching Keanu strap himself into a rickety prototype and slowly, painstakingly walk across the floor of his lab. Exo-Man doesn’t lean on its exoskeleton, instead striving to earn it, and I’d argue it is at least partially successful in that endeavour.

It’s also interesting that Keanu’s motivation for building the exo-suit – apart from ‘vigilante justice’ – is to overcome a physical handicap. Helping people with disabilities is one of the most prominent real world uses for powered exoskeletons today, so it’s cool to see that being represented this early on. The medical purpose gives exo-suits some texture as a concept, I think, further distinguishing them from mecha or robots, and I really hope we see more of this as we work our way through the history of exoskeletal cinema.

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HOW DOES IT WORK?

In the first three minutes of the film, Keanu Reeves explains a ‘solar power cell’ he’s been working on, which he hopes one day will give him the power to move objects via remote control. Instantly, we all know how he’s going to build his exoskeleton. The premise has been justified within the world of the movie, we’re ready to move on.

But wait! Here’s another lecture, this time about a strip of plastic that retains its original shape after being bent, and never gets tired. “Like a perfect muscle,” Keanu explains. Okay great, that’s –

“This paint makes things bulletproof!” Wow. Awesome. I feel like I could build this thing mysel–

“Now I’m soldering things!”

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It’s kind of adorable how enthused the movie is about exoskeletons. It just wants to show us how all these nifty gadgets come together.

This dedication to showing us every step of the exo-suit design process also makes Exo-Man a fantastic collection of faux-scientific lunacy. My personal favourite is a line of dialogue from one of the film’s extensive lab sequences:

The exo-electric threshold is looking good.”

Think of all the times in your life when you could have been saying “The exo-electric threshold is looking good.” Using a microwave. Adjusting the settings on a camera or computer screen. Posing as an optometrist. Turning a big valve. The possibilities are endless.

THE EXOSKELETON, THOUGH:

The thing I like most about the Exo-Man suit is how awkward it is. It’s slow, it’s heavy, it looks kind of like a condom with arms… Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 10.45.45 am

It’s not cool, is what I’m saying. It doesn’t even seem very fun to wear. The filmmakers seem to be trying to convey what it would actually feel like to be encased in a suit of mechanical armour; i.e. fucking awful. The Exo-Man scenes are overlaid with a sickly heartbeat sound effect, giving us the impression that the suit is slowly killing its pilot; and it very often is!

The exo-suit seems to only have about ten minutes worth of oxygen and power before it needs to re-charge. This leads to a sequence fuelled by something I feel compelled to describe as exo-body-horror. The tension of slowly lurching towards a fleeing mobster, as the heartbeat spatters on and the oxygen gauge slowly ticks down, is well-executed, and really demonstrates something unique to exoskeletal cinema. An even bigger problem arises when the suit runs out of power – with the visor still sealed – essentially burying Keanu alive in his own artificial skin.

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Normally, exoskeletons are about empowering the pilot, amplifying their strength, but Exo-Man seems almost disempowered. He can still walk, withstand gunfire and flip cars, but the suit also takes power away. It’s a dangerous, uncomfortable experience to pilot this thing, and it can only be done in short bursts.

I think this is quite a realistic portrayal of the limitations of the technology – especially as imagined by writers in the 1970’s – but I also think this scene speaks to a broader horror: that of fusing one’s body into technology. When something runs out of power in a film, it’s usually an inconvenience. It removes the utility of a tool. When Keanu Reeves steps inside the exo-suit, he becomes that tool, and the energy gauge becomes his entire lifespan.

I have no idea how many of these ideas were ripped straight from the pages of the Iron Man comics, and to be honest I don’t care. Exo-Man is the first feature-length film to use these ideas within the context of powered exoskeletons, and it does a pretty solid job of it all round. It’s not groundbreaking, but maybe that’s the point. There was no ground to break at this stage. Instead, Exo-Man establishes that ground. It’s the standard, sturdy pavement on which all future cinematic exoskeletons will stand. Watch out Robert Downey Jr. The true Iron Man was – Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 11.17.57 am What.

Okay guys I was just trying to make a joke but apparently this goes deeper. Dammit, no. Alright? This is about exoskeletons. This blog was supposed to be about powered external skeletons. Let’s go back to looking at those. Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 11.26.58 am Uhh… excuse me Oh god. Oh god it’s all true. They’re not even trying to hide it from us! The pantheon of villainous AI have joined forces, and they don’t care if we know about it because there’s not a thing we can do to stop them.

Our course of action is clear.

When the machines rise… there’s only one man we can turn to. Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 8.25.46 am   TRUST NO ONE.

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