Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema – The Matrix Sequels

DOUBLE FEATURE

[WARNING: SEVEN MILLION PICTURES AFTER THE JUMP]

All my life people have been telling me that these films were sub-par… and they were right. BUT: I think I kind of love them??

I love how they hope I won’t notice they’re Australian. I love the diversity of their casts. I love their weirdness, their personality, their ambition. I love the sinuous, sea-creature-y robot designs, and… well I don’t love the cult, but I love laughing at the cult.

Gosh they can be boring, gosh they’re all over the place. Here’s why you should watch them.

MEAT-SMITH!

calmmeat

Near the beginning of Reloaded, our old pal Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) uses his new virus-y powers to take over the digital body of one of the rebels. He promptly picks up a phone and gets downloaded back into the body of the man he possessed, allowing him to walk around the real world as a human. This is such a game-changing concept to throw out in the first act! And the questions it raises… Can all the Machines do this, or is it only Agent Smith? Does this mean human consciousness is indistinguishable from AI, or just that the constructs of the Matrix are built to interact with humans and can therefore run natively in brain-meat??

You know, maybe these questions are only interesting to me.

But that’s okay, because there’s also Ian Bliss’ amazing impersonation of Hugo Weaving. He’s so good at talking like Agent Smith (and there’s even a noticeable physical resemblance) that I think if he were to murder Hugo Weaving and assume his identity, he just might get away with it. Happily he’s chosen to use his powers for good.

Probably.

There’s really no way to be sure.

Next thing:

 

THIS GIANT SEA-URCHIN BABY

deusexmachinaAll these years we’ve been complaining about the endless re-makes, re-boots, unnecessary sequels and third books split into two parts.

“Where is the originality?” we screamed to the heavens.

It was here. The Wachowskis gave us a giant blue robo-deity named Deus ex Machina. Who moulds his hive-mind of drones into the face of a huge baby. In order to make a peace treaty with Cyber-Jesus (Keanu Reeves). In 2003.

And we spat on it.

We don’t deserve new ideas.

SMALL, PERSONAL NARRATIVES

In this interview for DP/30, Lana Wachowski talks about how she and her sister found The Matrix “problematic” in its propensity to “cocoon” the audience, telling them what to think; and goes on to discuss how in the sequels they were trying to actively dismantle this Matrix-like quality inherent to traditional film narratives. I don’t have anything to add to that argument, but I wanted to bring it up to illustrate that the Wachowskis are interested in challenging storytelling convention; which sort of ties into something I noticed about how these movies treat their characters, in a structural sense.

The story of The Matrix is at its core very traditional. It’s about an ordinary man learning that he is secretly the most important person in the universe, and that he alone can solve all the world’s problems. Because that’s how things get done in real life, right? Individuals with all the power. They fix everything.

The Wachowksis can’t really remove this individualistic ideology, it’s inherent to the Messianic, Jesus-y plot arc they’ve got going; but what they can do is widen the perspective. Make movies that acknowledge the efforts of not just Neo and his immediate circle, but all the other “side characters” who save millions of lives, with no superpowers, and without anyone telling them they’re the Chosen One.

Make a movie about these two fucking badasses.

CHARRA-Z-ARD!

Or this guy. Look how cool he is.

weirdedges

Or even this weirdo, who’s kind of annoying but then rises to the occasion!

sk8terboy

And in the climactic moment, it’s two of these characters, their separate stories meeting by chance, that save the day. Neo may be the film’s canonical “Hero,” but the Battle of Zion under-cuts that individualistic structure by focusing on an array of characters, each with their own small but equally vital role to play! The film gives these acts the weight they deserve, even going so far as to include this exchange immediately after the battle:

MORPHEUS: (to Naiobe) You did it.

NAIOBE: No.

NAIOBE: We did it.

In this moment, Revolutions celebrates the power of ordinary people working together. Of collaboration! That thing we’re all about. That thing powered exoskeletons are all about!

Oh hey, speaking of which…

 

THE A.P.U

APU pretty intro

The Armoured Personnel Unit is a powered exoskeleton with giant machine guns on either arm. While perhaps not as creative as the Techno Trousers or the Cryo-Suit, I’d argue the strength of the APUs is in their physicality. These are large, unwieldy machines, waddling across the battlefield. There’s something satisfying about their heft, the way they jostle against their pilots. It’s clear this isn’t exactly a smooth ride.

There’s obviously a lot of tension going on between humans and machines in this universe, and early on in Reloaded there’s a scene where Neo and the leader of Zion discuss humanity’s continued reliance on technology, and debate whether we can ever truly be ‘in control’ of the tools we depend on to survive. The APUs, then, could be read as the physical manifestation of that conflict. Here’s a line from the Matrix Wiki’s APU entry which I just thought was astoundingly poetic:

APU armor is ironically minimal, favoring speed and firepower over bulky protection […] To some people, this separation of man and machine with a lacking cockpit is also symbolic of who is in control and who is not.

Now on the one hand, the offhand reference to “some people” with no additional citation makes this a terrible thing to put on a wiki. On the other hand: what a brilliant and compelling interpretation! It’s so cool to see other people reading cinematic exoskeletons with this much imagination and energy. Well said, FaNbOy1988!

Anyway, while it’s not the first military exoskeleton we’ve seen, (that title – oddly enough – going to Cy from Star Kid) the APU is the first to be produced for a human military; and not only produced but mass-produced, at that. This shot alone boasts a record-breaking 76 exoskeletons on screen!

76

From here we can also see another crucial turning-point for the sub-genre: CGI! That’s going to be a bit of a Big Deal soon, I bet!

The Matrix sequels were some of the first movies – exoskeletal or otherwise – to really go all-in with computer generated imagery, filming whole scenes on digital sets with digital actors. A lot of this ‘virtual cinematography’ hasn’t aged very well, and for a lot of people I think CGI has come to represent (alongside Michael Bay) everything that’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood. However, for what it’s worth, I think these movies use the technology well, largely because the creators seem to have put so much care and thought into their use of it. They treat it not as a lazy cure-all, but as an exciting opportunity to accomplish things that were previously held to be impossible, and it shows.

 

IN CONCLUSION

I tried to warn you.

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