Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema – Star Kid

At first I thought I would struggle to find something to say about this film. It is, for all its quirks, a fairly typical hero’s journey / nerd power fantasy. I guess a lot of what makes it interesting to talk about is in how it demonstrates the flaws inherent to both of those types of stories.

Skele-Talkie #7 – Star Kid (1998)

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Spencer (Joseph Mazello) is a wimpy nerd who nobody likes, presumably due to his being a rabid sociopath (more on that later.) His two big problems are that he’s being bullied and that he’s too scared to speak to the girl he has a crush on. The solution, his complete saint of a teacher Ms. Holloway (Corinne Bohrer) tells him, is to face his fears. It’s not clear how much of this message gets through to Spencer, as he’s being made to hold a live tarantula at the time.

I was really on-board at this point because, a) as someone who is afraid of a lot of things, and sculpts their life around avoiding those things, I can attest to this being a valuable lesson to teach children, and b) spiders are one of the oldest and most prolific exoskeletons living with us today! Throwing a tarantula into this scene is a great way to bump the Exoskeleton Count up by one early on. Nice work, Star Kid!

Where it all falls down a little is in the method through which Spencer eventually does learn to face his fears, but we’ll come back to that. Once all his character points have been established, Spencer stumbles onto an exosuit, and it’s… actually kind of groundbreaking?

 

THE CYBORSUIT

Cy Midshot DS

The Phase 1 Close Assault… Cyborsuit (‘Cy’ for short) is a prototype exoskeleton, developed by a race of alien hobgoblins to save their home planet. What’s remarkable is that it – or rather ‘he’, I think? – is a person. Cy (Voice: Arthur Burghardt. Physical Performance: Alex Daniels) is the first sentient exosuit in the history of exoskeletal cinema.

Now, you might be asking, “What’s the difference between a sentient exoskeleton and a robot?” And what’s brilliant is that in his first scene, Cy addresses that question. When asked “Are you a robot?” he replies:

“Partially factual. I am not designed for independent motion. A biotic host is required.”

How great is it that I finally get to quote an exoskeleton in my blog about exoskeletons? Cy defines his exoskeleton-ness here, and in doing so confirms all that stuff I’ve been saying about ‘symbiosis’ this whole time. He’s designed for collaboration, not domination. While robots in fiction are mired under a layer of paranoia – a fear of this mechanical ‘other’ rising up to extinguish their squishy creators – exoskeletal fiction by its very nature imagines a co-operative relationship between humans and machines.

We see a great example of these ideas in action during the fairground scene, where Cy perceives a man dressed as a dragon to be an alien threat, and immediately opens fire. Spencer, with his better understanding of local customs, manages to talk Cy down before anyone gets hurt; acting as a kind of jury-rigged morality filter. It’s easy to imagine a sentient robot intelligent enough to make these decisions on their own, but if  – as it is in our case – that kind of technology is unavailable, cramming a human inside the machine is quite a practical solution!

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I feel the need to make a redaction here. Exoskeletons may work as metaphors for symbiosis or collaboration, but the suggestion that exoskeletal fiction imagines literal co-operation with actual machines is lunacy. If we were really co-operating, we’d make the machines autonomous and trust them not to murder us. If anything, exoskeletal fiction is more paranoid and technophobic than its robot-focused counterpart because exoskeletons represent a movement away from artificial intelligence, towards total domination and control by humans. Cy is actually a bit of a special case because he’s an intelligent exosuit – but that’s a path I really don’t think we should continue down, fictionally or otherwise – for reasons I’ll make clear at the end. Thanks for reading!]

 

WEIRD ALIEN BIO-METAL

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Cy is the first exoskeleton we’ve seen who wasn’t designed by humans. This allows the film’s creators to think outside the traditions of human machinery, and even metallurgy. His interior is lined with wriggling, pulsating veins, and his movements seem to be directed not by pistons or gears, but muscles. He’s distinctly biological in design, blurring the distinction between the mechanical and the – as Cy would call it – ‘biotic.’

That said, from the outside Cy is predominantly smooth chrome, while the film’s antagonist – a more traditionally ‘living,’ insect-like alien– seems to sway slightly more to the biological side, forming blunt weapons and even spaceships out of its leathery skin. The presentation of these two entities in opposition creates a dichotomy between ‘metal’ and ‘flesh.’

All these different plays on the tech / bio dichotomy seem, as a motif, perfectly suited to exoskeletal fiction; and while I didn’t mention it last time, this kind of thing was also very much on display in Batman and Robin (1997), specifically in the representation of Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze. I’m curious to see how this trend will develop as time goes on.

Coming back to Cy’s weird innards: they’re really gross. That was one of the things that surprised me about this movie: how fucking repulsive it could be. I mean just… just look at this thing. What is that?

horrible food sphere ds

The film is very clearly shooting for humour in these stomach-churning scenes, but I found them to be genuinely disquieting at times. From the moment Spencer enters Cy, we see him being shoved forcefully into an air-tight suit of artificial, veiny skin. He screams for help as a metal dome encases his head, welding itself shut as it goes. It’s later revealed that Spencer can’t remove the exosuit until his mission is complete, turning Cy from ‘cool space toy’ into ‘horrifying alien prison’; and to cap it all off, Cy’s cramped interior is riddled with veiny protuberances that occasionally jut out at Spencer.

By wearing Cy, Spencer gains a lot of strength and mobility with regards to the external world; but he has no method of fighting back against aggressors from within the skin that encases him. Relative to Cy, Spencer can’t move at all, which makes the scene where Cy shoves a steaming pellet of pre-chewed food down Spencer’s throat… kind of disturbing. It really doesn’t help that all of Cy’s internal appendages look so much like worm-infested penises.

horrible brain penis ds

 

ON VIOLENCE

I mentioned before how Spencer’s whole problem is not facing his fears. That’s all fine and dandy. Unfortunately, the film’s main way of talking about fear and bravery is through punches. Spencer’s real problem is that he doesn’t punch that ‘Turbo’ kid (Joey Simmrin) right in his stupid face. When’s he gonna man up already? Get physically violent already.

In the beginning of the film Spencer is actually kind of cool. We see him run away from the bullies, hiding in a bin at one point to lose them. However, the film makes it clear that what I perceived to be some Solid Snake-level stealthy pacifism was, in fact, the hallmark of a Loser.

It’s not that Spencer doesn’t want to fight, he’s just scared he won’t win; so when he stumbles upon a combat exoskeleton, he finally has the confidence he needs to perform some courageously aggressive acts. Spencer slams Turbo’s face into a car window, and chases him out onto the street before throwing him into a meat-dumpster. What a hero.

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And, you know, I get it. I did a lot worse at that age, prick-with-anger-issues that I was. But the film makes no attempt to condemn Spencer’s actions, instead suggesting that they are actively good, and necessary. There’s a scene later where Spencer says he doesn’t want to fight, then re-considers: “… Well maybe just a little,” and – giving in to temptation – floors Turbo with a punch to the face; at which point Turbo suddenly respects him and they can team up against the final boss. Violence works, kids!

I know people, even children, don’t just do whatever they see a character do on-screen. That’s an overly simplified idea of how media works. But I keep imagining myself seeing this film, back when I was the target audience. Back when I was the aforementioned prick-with-anger-issues. It took me years to see the ugliness of what I was doing, and I don’t think this movie would have helped enlighten me on that subject any faster. It so actively celebrates the image of a kid hitting another kid, and it just… it feels unnecessary is all. Like we’ve moved away from this kind of thing, in stories. Or I hope we have.

Anyway, Spencer’s performed 100% more acts of villainy than he has heroism at this point. Let’s see if his next actions can redeem hi–NOPE, he’s running straight off to stalk some women.

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SERIOUSLY

This is the part where I started wondering if Spencer was secretly the movie’s villain. ‘Hoping,’ maybe. Having pulled off his macho revenge-fantasy, Spencer’s next order of business is to head to the local carnival, with the intention of tracking down Michelle (Lauren Eckstrom), the girl he likes, and… just watching her. From behind a fence. I… I guess this is the best thing he can think of to do with his newfound alien super-suit?

To his credit, Cy seems as confused by Spencer’s behaviour as we are. Spencer explains that he “can’t talk to her,” because he “tenses up.”

“Then what is our mission here?”

“I just want to see what she’s doing, okay?”

EWWWWWWWW ds

Wow.

The worst part is, the film doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with this. There’s no cathartic moment where Cy tells Spencer that this is some toxic bullshit and that, were they on his home planet, Spencer would be dipped waist-deep in a vat of space weevils. If anything, this scene is supposed to symbolise Spencer’s growing heroism, because – you’ll love this – when Cy accidentally shoots down the ferris wheel carriage Michelle and her friends are sitting in, Spencer runs to catch it before it hits the ground. He then proceeds to stare silently at her, in what I think he thinks is a romantic moment? Then the camera comes in real close on Spencer as he realises “… you know, saving people’s a lot more fun than scaring them.”

Wh–

You didn’t save anyone, Spencer! You don’t get fucking points for just barely not murdering three people. Holy shit.

I think Spencer might be the biggest trash-bag to pilot an exosuit so far?

 

IN CONCLUSION

So… we’re all aware that Cy is a sentient being who can’t move unless someone else is wearing him, right?

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That’s fucked up.

 

 

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