Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: The Wrong Trousers (1993)

‘There is a body of live action feature films featuring powered exoskeletons,’ says Wikipedia.* It proceeds to list all of them, and four entries in mentions a film that is neither live action, nor a feature. Part of me thinks of this as an error in need of correction, but then the rest of me tells that part to shut the hell up because Wallace and Gromit are above the law.

EXO-FEATURE #4: THE WRONG TROUSERS (1993)

Ex-Nasa

HERE’S THE DEAL:

Wallace is an inventor and ravenous cheese addict. His dog, Gromit, is kind of a genius but no one knows that because he can’t talk. They’ve got sort of a Penn and Teller thing going on I guess.

In every episode, Wallace will invent some miraculous piece of technology, only for that technology to fall immediately into the wrong hands. In the case of The Wrong Trousers, the invention is a pair of giant robot pants – dubbed ‘Techno Trousers’ – that can take Gromit for walks so that Wallace doesn’t have to. It’s actually Wallace’s birthday gift to Gromit. Wallace is… kind of an asshole? That’s something I missed, as a kid.

Somebody Owns You

 ANYWAY, THE EXOSKELETON:

One of the reasons I think this film should stay on the list is that it features such a unique exoskeleton. So far in this series we’ve seen mostly either a) big, bulky metallic frames or b) roughly human-shaped suits of armour. I love the fact that this early in the history of exoskeletal cinema, we’re already branching out into the weird sub-genre of mechanised pants.

Not to mention the fact that the Techno Trousers look so useful and fun. They let you walk on walls and ceilings, they allow you to run crazy fast and jump higher than buildings… They’re fantastic. Probably the best exoskeleton we’ve seen so far. Except, well… okay maybe there’s one design flaw.

A couple of times in the past I’ve referenced exosuits as requiring their pilots. They don’t move around on their own, they just amplify the actions of the person wearing them. The Techno Trousers break with this tradition, operating independently of and in charge of the wearer’s actual legs. This design choice comes back to haunt Wallace when a penguin hijacks the controls, welds him inside the trousers and forces him to rob a museum.

GROMIIIIIIT

The dangers of technology are a core theme in Wallace and Gromit movies, and Wrong Trousers is touching on a big concern here that’s usually applied to discussions of transhumanism (basically the concept of people becoming cyborgs in real life). The idea is that if you replaced your legs with mechanical legs, or your brain with a computer, someone might be able to hack your body, taking control of your movements or even your thoughts. Ordinarily we don’t see these problems in stories about powered exoskeletons because – as we saw in Aliens – you can climb out of them.

All Wallace would have to do is map the controls to the wearer’s physical legs, maybe add a manual eject button, and he would have been a millionaire. The world would have been forever changed. Instead, once the penguin has been imprisoned in the local zoo (another element of Wallace and Gromit’s social commentary) we see the Techno Trousers tossed in the bin, never to be seen again.

OR WILL THEY?

REXOccasionally in this series I’ve compared the exoskeletons we’ve been looking at to some contemporary real-life examples. At this early stage, the films we’re watching are all predicting a futuristic technology; and I never thought I’d be able to say this, but The Wrong Trousers is by far the most accurate prediction we’ve seen. It’s almost non-fiction at this point.

The REX – from Rex Bionics – is a robotic exoskeleton designed to grant freedom of movement to non-ambulatory wheelchair users. This is a set of robot legs that are real and exist right now. I mean, for me that’s the true sign that we live in the future.

From what I’ve seen of their promotional videos, the REX isn’t exactly Techno Trousers. It’s less ‘upside-down diamond heist’ and more ‘walking slowly across your living room.’ But that’s still pretty amazing. And it does stairs! Stairs!

There’s still all the usual problems to do with charging the batteries, and the REX website implies you need to have a certain “hip width” to use it… but the way I see it, this technology’s only going to get better. That’s what I’m excited about.

OBLIGATORY TANGENT:

Now, over the course of this blog, I’ve had this running gag about a scene from The Ambushers that’s eerily similar to the famous Queen/Loader fight at the end of Aliens. Unfortunately, The Wrong Trousers doesn’t feature that scene, so I don’t get to make the joke.

Enter 2008’s A Matter of Loaf and Death.

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In the climactic battle of this episode, Wallace plays the helpless invalid (Newt / Matt Helm), trapped in an industrial environment by a female serial killer (Piella Bakewell / the Alien Queen.) He gets saved at the last minute by Fluffles (Ellen Ripley / Sheila Sommers) a poodle piloting a modified forklift. It’s a lovingly detailed homage, with Wallace hiding under a grate in the floor, POV shots of Piella all but gnashing her teeth through the forklift bars, and I suspect the liquid dough Gromit falls into – rendering him unable to help – might even be a child-friendly analogue to Bishop’s android blood.

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I’d love to argue that the recurrence of this scene is the result of some ancient myth, some exoskeletal Ur narrative, but I’m pretty sure Aardman just felt like throwing in a treat for Aliens fans. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth mentioning that this franchise – fifteen years and a feature film after its brief tryst with exoframe cinema – took a moment to stop, and throw a respectful nod to the subgenre it had unwittingly helped to build.

A Matter of Loaf and Death acknowledges the fact that powered exoskeletons, while only appearing once in the series, are woven inextricably into its DNA. Linked through their passion for marvellous, nonsensical contraptions, Wallace and Gromit will forever be a part of exoframe cinema, and vice versa.BINds* This has since been amended. Wallace and Gromit’s position on the list is secured.

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