Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Aliens (1986)

This is it everybody. After many moons of waiting, we’re finally here. The third entry in the history of exoskeletal cinema. The first blockbuster to feature an exosuit. The first exoskeletal romantic comedy. Yep, you heard me.

Watching this film specifically for the exoskeletons, the first half hour or so takes on a real will-they-won’t-they dynamic; Cameron teasing us with shots of Ripley and the Loader, pointedly avoiding eye contact as the tension flares. Avoiding Eye Contact They don’t know they’re going to end up together, but we do, and there’s that same gentle frustration as the characters breeze past one another. Ships in the night. After all, Ripley’s just here to make a delivery. She doesn’t notice the Power Loader glancing at her from across the crowded office; but everyone in the audience just knows that in ten minutes they’re going to bump into each other, and the Loader’s paperwork is going to go flying. It’ll bend down to try and pick everything up, pawing clumsily at the floor with its huge, industrial strength claws – until Ripley’s hand plants itself gently at their tip.

“Here, let me.”


Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 4.51.36 pm The first two films we’ve discussed in this series were fringe as all hell. We saw a Bond spoof and a Marvel rip-off (both of which I love unreservedly, they are part of our powered external family) but with this movie James Cameron brought powered exoskeletons screeching into the mainstream, and he did it by combining the best elements of his two predecessors.

We’ve already established that The Ambushers wasn’t really about exosuits – instead being about inequality – and Cameron reproduces that structure here. While the Power Loader is certainly an iconic part of the film, it is not the subject or the premise. It hangs quietly in the periphery, waiting to lend a claw in changing sci-fi action movies forever.

I wonder now whether this is the best role for exo-frames to take in cinema. Is their ideal use in film – as it is with human beings – to augment the existing structure? It’s too early to say for certain, but I can say that Aliens makes it work.

Just because the film doesn’t devote a lot of time to the Power Loader doesn’t mean it doesn’t care about it. Cameron combines the minimal screen-time of The Ambushers with Exo-Man levels of tech-fetishism. The camera loves the Loader. Its appearances are crammed with tight close-ups and deliciously clunky audio, the film inviting us to run our hands over the controls of the machine. Feel the weight of those huge metal arms. Weird Hand FixationEarly on we see Spunkmeyer loading a missile onto the Cheyenne. This short sequence serves to establish a masculine workplace environment for Ripley to break into seconds later, but what I really love about it is when Spunkmeyer steps back from the dropship and calls out ‘Clear behind?’ It’s not like he’s worried – he sounds and looks bored throughout – this is just standard procedure. That tells us so much about this world and where exosuits stand within it. They’re completely unremarkable. Routine.

Almost immediately afterwards we see Ripley strap herself into the Loader, something we never got to see in The Ambushers. Here Aliens makes explicit what Ambushers could only (accidentally?) imply: that a woman can do anything a man can.

One advantage the scene from Ambushers has over this one is the element of surprise, but of course we get that too in Ripley’s climactic battle with the Alien Queen. This is the scene that makes me secretly hope James Cameron has seen The Ambushers. In both films, a helpless child (Newt / Matt Helm) is pinned down in an industrial environment, before being rescued at the last minute by a female astronaut piloting a powered exoskeleton. PART B2 SERIOUSLY THOUGH, THE EXOSUIT: I’ve been doing some hardcore academic research on the Alien versus Predator wiki, and it turns out the Power Loader was piloted by a stuntman named John Lees, who was hidden inside it. This makes John Lees the first person to portray an exoskeleton on the big screen. May his soul stomp mercilessly through the loading bays of heaven.

For some of the wide shots, a miniature Loader puppet was constructed. It took five people to operate, and it had a tiny Ellen Ripley doll strapped into the seat. At first I couldn’t believe that all this time Aliens had been a movie with puppets in it, but scanning back over the film I found this little gem: Spunkmeyer Puppet Alt copy2That’s Sigourney Weaver on the left, being 80’s green-screened in front of the Ripley doll, who’s playing Spunkmeyer. This makes Doll Ripley the first inanimate object to pilot an exosuit on the big screen! It’s a testament to everyone involved that the Puppet Loader never takes us out of the action. Not even during the climactic fight against the Queen – a fight I’d now like to look at in depth because it’s important to me. Important to exoskeletons. Let's Talk About ThisDS I mean… wow. Can we just take a moment to look at that image? At how that harsh backlighting merges Ripley and the Loader into one shape? It’s so simple it seems dumb to point it out, but it’s just the perfect way to communicate the premise of a powered exoskeleton through lighting. I love it.

This scene plays lot awkwarder than it does in my head. There’s no background music, just hisses, whirring and grunts. Ripley misses the Queen about as often as she hits. It’s slow going, uncomfortable. We’re meant to feel Ripley’s frustration. The warning lights are flashing in our eyes, the Loader whines with every clumsy swipe, and the Queen’s flailing its teeth half a metre from the camera. It’s such a sincere attempt at tension, it feels revelatory. If this film were made today, I’m convinced the Jurassic Park theme would be playing.

No part of the Loader is wasted in this fight. The claws allow Ripley to grab the Queen in a chokehold, she uses the in-built controls to open the airlock, and we even get to see the welder put to use. The welder… wasn’t foreshadowed, admittedly. Kind of came out of nowhere. But it fits. And flamethrowers!

Look how the welder is attached in such a way that Ripley can operate the controls and melt faces, simultaneously. That’s love, right there. That’s the person who designed this loader saying “I cared.” fire2 Tragically, this is a fight the Loader cannot win. After being pulled bodily into the airlock, (leaving Ripley completely unharmed, what a fucking stupendous exoframe!) the Loader is left to keep the Queen trapped while Ripley opens the doors. As it falls into space, you can almost see it trying to take the Queen with it. But it can’t. Without Ripley it’s powerless.

But hey, it got the job done, and in doing so really demonstrated one of the advantages of exoframes over, say, cyborgs, i.e: that you can climb out of them. The Loader provides the industrial strength and versatility required to keep Ripley alive, while Bishop flounders helplessly from the sidelines. That’s Exoframes: 1, Robots: 0. Just sayin’. Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 6.40.37 pm So the Loader drifts off into space forever. The Hicks-shippers may think they’ve won by default, but I think we all know who Ripley would have gone with had circumstance allowed. Just look at her face. Look at her face and tell me she isn’t mourning the loss of the one thing in the universe tough enough to earn her respect. The only one as fearless. As unkillable. riploadermeme


4 thoughts on “Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Aliens (1986)

  1. These reviews are terrific to read! Please keep it up. I dropped ‘Spider-Man’ since the reference was poor. ‘Batman & Robin’ may be worth skipping too — it is more “power armor” than “powered exoskeleton”, judging from the sources.

    • Hahaha, oh wow hi. Big fan.

      Really interested in what you’ve said here about Batman and Robin. Does this mean you’re drawing a distinction between powered exoskeletons and power armour? Because I know Wiki’s ‘powered exoskeleton’ page doesn’t. If so, what are the implications for, say, Iron Man? Feel like the question of ‘what defines a powered exoskeleton’ may need a post in its own right.

      (Never heard of Basket Case 3 but I’m super excited to watch it now. Perfect timing for a Halloween update!)

      • Upon further consideration, I think you’re right. The Batman wikia mentions that the suit gave him additional strength. My previous impression from what reliable sources I could find were just that it kept him cold. On Wikipedia, we try to follow the sources that identify powered exoskeletons in films, but sometimes sources also use the terms “cyborg” or “mecha”, so the categories can be rather blurred. I do think Iron Man qualifies because he is most often brought up in articles about powered exoskeletons in real life. If you find any reliable sources about powered exoskeletons in films that could be used in the list article, let me know! Look forward to future updates. 🙂

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