Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Citation Needed

titanic-sinkingDS

Six weeks ago, a new film was added to Wikipedia’s list of films featuring powered exoskeletons. For two and a half hours, James Cameron’s Titanic was the 7th exoskeletal film ever made. This means that very, very briefly, Cameron was the only person in history to have directed three pieces of exoskeletal fiction. (As things stand he’s still tied with the Wachowskis, Neil Blomkamp, Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon at 2.)

Naturally this edit did not last long, and I want to reaffirm just how well maintained even this incredibly niche subsection of Wikipedia really is. This is not a post about the unreliability of Wikis as a resource. Rather, I wanted to talk about some of these scratched out entries on the register of exoskeletal cinema. What are the films that didn’t make the cut?

 

ROBOT JOX (1989)robotjox

For some reason, 80s mech-punching movie Robot Jox is far and away the most popular failed entry to this list. On at least one occasion it’s been added and removed twice within 24 hours. So, you know. Maybe stop putting it on there, everyone?

That said, it’s easy to see – if we assume these edits aren’t just vandalism – how people could get confused. The reason Robot Jox and Pacific Rim aren’t on the list is because they’re considered mecha films. I’m no expert on mecha, but I get the sense they’re usually thought of as giant robots with legs. Sometimes arms? Often they’re controlled by human pilots, which makes the distinction between powered exoskeletons and mecha pretty blurry at times, to the point where Wikipedia’s mecha article lists several exoskeletons we’ve covered in this series as mechs.

From reading the comments on old edits to the exoskeletal list, we hear it’s possible that “powered exoskeletons are defined as being worn by humans,” which provides a basic guide-line for our interpretation. Exoskeletons are ‘wearable,’ relatively form-fitting. My general rule of thumb is that if a character could stand up and walk around while still being ‘inside’ the machine, it’s a mech.

(Adding to this confusion, I have on multiple occasions referred to the people controlling exoskeletons as ‘pilots,’ and the locations from which they control those exoskeletons as ‘cockpits,’ both of which are used frequently in discussions of mecha. This is due to a failure on my part to come up with a new exoskeletal terminology. As of this moment I’d like to propose ‘wearer’ and ‘seat,’ respectively, and will try to stick with those terms moving forward.)

It’s also been hinted on a more recent Wikipedia edit that “exoskeletons and mechas are not mutually exclusive.” This… sort of throws everything I’ve just said into question, doesn’t it? However, the comment goes on to re-assert the importance of citing reliable sources, which just goes to show that – from Wikipedia’s perspective – all that matters is whether a reliable source has called something an exoskeleton. If the front page of tomorrow’s Age were to read “ROBOT JOX: THE GREATEST MOVIE FEATURING POWERED EXOSKELETONS OF ALL TIME”… that’s the new truth.

For now, however, Robot Jox doesn’t make the cut. Which is a shame, because it ends like this:

 

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)

This one was added to the list on 28th December 2013, and it lasted about a week. There was a good reason for its removal – it was added without citation – but that’s not the reason that was given. The editor removed Wreck-It Ralph from the list because it was “not live-action.”

This is in reference to a phrase used in the introduction of the list that has since been removed. For a long time, the article opened with “There is a body of live-action feature films featuring powered exoskeletons.” This has since been qualified to “mainly live-action,” which is why The Wrong Trousers got to stay. But Wreck-It Ralph wasn’t so lucky.

RALPH ds

Which is fine, because again, there was no citation. If you google ‘wreck it ralph exoskeleton’ you don’t even get anything substantial. It’s actually kind of ambiguous if the suits in the film are power armour or just… armour, with lights. The truth is, Wreck-It Ralph was a red herring. APRIL FOOLS, let’s talk about The Animatrix (2003)!

This one’s an animated anthology film, showcasing 9 stories set within the Matrix universe. One of those stories is called The Second Renaissance Part II, and in it we get a couple glimpses of those big things on the left there:

APU 01 ds

Our old friends over on the Matrix Wiki claim that these machines are in fact an earlier model of the Armoured Personnel Unit we saw in Reloaded and Revolutions. These ancient APUs are more enclosed, and have a limited-but-nonetheless-present capacity for flight. Now, for all I know there’s still no reliable source that calls these things exoskeletons, so this still doesn’t make the list. It’s also just one short film within a larger collection, which might disqualify it altogether.

Regardless, I liked The Animatrix a lot and felt like it deserved a mention. The stories range from moments of gut-wrenching gore to soft, quiet beauty. They are also shamelessly, all-but-universally sexist in their treatment towards women, which… come to think of it actually gives them more in common with canonical exoskeletal cinema.

… Hey, you know what’s less depressing than thinking about that? BIG HERO 6 (2014)!

BAYMAX small

Such a charming movie. Even skimming back over it now I keep smiling.

It’s interesting because while Baymax’s big red super-suit may not be an exoskeleton, it’s pretty clearly a reference to the Iron Man suit. Right down to the flying pose. So now we’re getting pieces of technology that reference exoskeletal cinema. That’s cool to see.

Anyway no explicit references to “powered exoskeletons” yadda yadda I thought we were done here. My plans for this section of the post went no further. But then I saw this:

FREDSUIT BIG small

Did you catch it? There in the bottom right?

Hang on. Lemme enlarge it and up the contrast a little.

FREDSUIT SMALL small

There it is. Right there on the screen. “SUPER-JUMP EXOSKELETON.” I am… unreasonably happy right now.

These aren’t even the schematics for Baymax’s suit! This is Fred’s monster costume. The least-likely contender for being an exoskeleton in the film’s entire cast, but there it is! A close examination of the schematics confirms that Fred’s suit, while appearing to be nothing more than a rubber kaiju costume, is secretly jam-packed with futuristic hardware; including a “powered leg piston,” a “magnetic launcher” and “jump activated impact compression.” This isn’t just an exoskeleton, this is an exoskeleton that’s done it’s homework!

It actually makes a lot of sense within the context of the rest of the film. Big Hero 6 wears its real-life-tech influences proudly on its sleeve, and always does its best to give a semi-credible explanation for the colourful sci-fi magic it presents. GoGo’s rollerblades, for instance, are loosely based on maglev technology. So, one of Fred’s ‘powers’ is that he can jump super high, right? And I don’t remember if they ever say it in the movie, but yeah, an exoskeleton would be a great way of doing that. Evidently the filmmakers were thinking the same thing!

Now, you’re probably getting tired of hearing this, but none of this means anything Wikipedia-wise. This is all what’s called ‘original research,’ and as far as Wikipedia is concerned it is hot garbage. What we would need is a reliable published source to mention Fred’s super-jump exoskeleton. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that any self-respecting website or journal would write about a tiny piece of flavour text appearing in the bottom-right corner of the screen for three seconds. So it’s only here, on my dumb blog for nerds, that the truth can be revealed!

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 (1993)

This one opens on a military base where scientists are attempting to weaponize zombies. A boring army man wants to use special tranquilizers to contain the new undead weapons, but Lieutenant Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) has something different in mind.

BORING MAN: Yeah I heard about your idea. Something about a… steel cage?

SINCLAIR: (Correcting him) An exoskeleton.

This is less than two minutes into the movie! And she just keeps saying it. At every opportunity. ‘Exoskeleton’ is Sinclair’s favourite word! Decades of no one saying that word and now it keeps happening and it’s beautiful.

As the boring man’s tranquilizers stop working and the zombies start killing people, Sinclair begins to take control of the project, working to make her exoskeletal plans a reality. I was so excited!

I got about half way through the movie before I realised: she never said the word ‘powered.’ And, sure enough…

APRIL FOOLS, it basically is just a cage. It allows the zombies free movement until someone gets behind them and pulls the lever on their back to lock all the joints, rendering them immobile. I searched for any reference to a power source, or to some strength amplification capacity, but no. It seems to help hold the zombie together when bits of it get cut off, but otherwise it’s just a bunch of metal bars.

Cool to see a film that features a non-powered exoskeleton, I guess? It’d be interesting to see a movie about a powered exoskeleton that’s designed to restrict rather than enable. Kind of explore the claustrophobic horror we touched on in Exo-Man, maybe.

HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL

It’s right there in the title, people. Hamilton is a musicalIf you want to go start a list of powered exoskeletons in Broadway theatre, be my guest, but, you know… it’d be a pretty short list, I’m guessing?

HAMILTON ds

Maybe – maybe – if they decide to make a film adaptation, and they don’t cut that scene, and a credible source declares what’s depicted to be a powered exoskeleton, then and only then will Hercules Mulligan’s electric waistcoat – so crucial to his acts of espionage, relaying messages under the very noses of the British government – become a part of cinematic exoskeletal history.

I know it’s a drag… but I’m willing to wait for it.

MANTERA (2012)

So far we’ve seen non-exoskeletons (mechs), non-live-action, non-powered and non-cinematic exoskeletons. There’s only one more to go, and that’s non-Western exoskeletons. Say hello to Mantera, a Malaysian sci-fi movie about a… you know what maybe let’s just look at it.

full shot DS

I can confirm for you that there is a person inside the machine. His name is Azman and it’s possible that he’s the chosen one? The film has an article on the Malay Wikipedia, and when I put the synopsis from that page into Google Translate it suggests that Azman finds a pair of gloves that can transform motorcycles into robot suits via nanotechnology. I can also tell you that the name stands for Man Transformable Exo-Robotic Armour, so… there’s that.

Most of the time, if you’re an English-speaking person with access to the internet, it’s easy to feel like all human knowledge is at your fingertips. It’s only when you run up against a barrier like language that you realise you are, in fact, confined. Beyond a handful of snarky reviews and blog posts comparing it to Transformers, this film remains largely outside the reach of English commentary. I can’t tell you if it’s an independent film or not. I can’t tell you if it was screened theatrically, whether it was a success, whether people liked it. I’ve failed you.

I’ve failed exoskeletons.

coolshot DS

It is possible this isn’t purely a language thing. Wikipedia has articles on other Malaysian films, so maybe Mantera‘s problem is that no one really cares about it. Maybe it’s just a terrible movie that everyone immediately forgot, and because it exists outside the Western tradition of obsessively cataloguing and discussing every piece of pulp that hits our eyeballs (this blog being a prime example) nobody cared enough to write about it – and thus, no place on the list.

IN CONCLUSION

I really would like to apologize again for all the editorialising in this post. Ordinarily I try to distance myself more, treat the Wikipedia page itself as gospel. The only reason I’m crossing that line now is that, at some point in the process, this actually became about the exoskeletons for me. I care about this insane fake sub-genre now; and while Wikipedia remains the most comprehensive and reliable source that I know of on the subject, I feel compelled to do a little reading outside what is independently verifiable. And I guess I figured, on a day like today, where nothing really counts and everything you hear is kinda non-canon… maybe this is a good time to talk about what I’ve found? Maybe, for just one day, I could revel in the fact that I’m not Wikipedia!

Maybe I could tell you, honestly, hey, look at me now: I think Big Hero 6 and Mantera are examples of exoskeletal cinema. There I said it. No one’s gonna back me up on that. I could be wrong, or crazy, or outright lying. Who knows?! This is the internet! But I’m saying what I think is true, and if you’ve found my evidence persuasive then, hey, maybe it’s true for both of us!

Tomorrow I’ll go back to playing by the rules, honest. Just for today though, let’s hear it for the new heroes of the just-now-invented-by-me revisionist exoskeletal cinema: MANTERA and the Monster Suit. Take a bow!

rebellious DS

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