Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema – Starship Troopers 3: Marauder

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The Starship Troopers movies are satirical science-fiction war films, set in a hyper-militarised fascist state. Protesters are routinely executed. ‘Voting’ exists, but only for veterans. State-sanctioned broadcasting spews a kaleidoscope of military propaganda from every available screen.

Here is a list of all the ways in which this fictional universe is preferable to our own!

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Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Iron Man

tonystarkDS

Recently in class I mentioned that I was trying to write something about the 2008 Iron Man movie, “and why I hate it.” Immediately, an audible intake of breath issued from the other side of the table. I had said something controversial. Soon afterwards, I was asked to explain myself.

“It’s military propaganda!” I stage-whispered, for some reason.

“Ohhh, said my classmates. “Right. Fair enough.”

I completely understand this reaction, but it also confirms for me that this movie’s conservative undertones are not the first things to spring to mind when it gets mentioned. So, in honour of that, and of those two good, smart people who breathed in: Iron Man (2008), and why I hate it.

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Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Citation Needed

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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?

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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.

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Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema – The Tuxedo

Hey! New year! How about that.

Everyone’s fucking dying.

Mise-En-Skeleton #8 – The Tuxedo (2002)

two shot DS

There’s an interesting comparison to be made, I think, between this movie and 1967’s The Ambushers. They’re both spy comedies, they’re both about a dim-witted man and his more competent female partner, and they both rely on sexual references and innuendo to carry their humour.  Jimmy Tong (Jackie Chan) is everything Matt Helm should have been – charmingly stupid, his grossness always the butt of the joke – while Del Blaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is a brilliant scientist who’s new to espionage but learns quickly and proceeds to kick ass throughout.

One complaint I had was that Del never gets her Sheila/Ripley moment. She never wears the exosuit. Looking back, however, I think maybe the whole point is that she doesn’t need an exosuit. In this film, exosuits are used exclusively by men to compensate for their lack of natural ability. How great is that? What a twist on the premise!

But the comparison isn’t all glowing signs of progress. There’s a lot of Ambushers still clinging, barnacle-like, to Tuxedo’s hull. Jimmy Tong may not be Matt Helm, but there’s a pair of idiot side-characters who are, and while the film clearly knows what they’re doing is wrong, it never veers into any form of substantial critique, and if anything feels a liiiiittle chummy with them at times.

Take the scene where Del Blaine and Steena (Debi Mazar) are practicing at the firing range while these two idiots use the security system to stare at their butts. As much as these men are painted as goofy and uncool, the camera still takes its sweet time moving away from the security footage, and even goes back a couple of times just to make sure we understand what’s happening. It’s butts. Butts are happening. While the film tries to justify its slightly leery camera work by having Hewitt’s character use seduction to accomplish her goals, there were still several moments where the camera would dip downwards a bit, or zoom in unnecessarily close, and I would think ‘Oh. This is for me.’

At the same time, there’s these little redeeming touches. Like during that uncomfortable firing range scene, we cut straight from a creepy zoom-in on Steena to a close-up of a male firing range target with a huge hole shot through its dick, by Steena. And then back to a montage of butts. It’s… what? What’s happening? Whose side are you on, The Tuxedo?

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On occasion I’ve seen powered exoskeletons referred to as ‘wearable robots,’ and the Tactical Uniform eXperiment (TUX) seems like the perfect realization of that idea. Sure, it lacks the industrial heft of say, the Power Loader, but if it means faster reflexes, being able to run as fast as a car and still being able to walk through human-sized doors… I know which one I’m buying at launch?

What makes the TUX particularly interesting is that, rather than amplifying the wearer’s natural movements, it takes direct control of their peripheral nervous system; rendering whoever’s inside it into an expendable, squishy puppet.

Luckily, the actions the suit takes can be controlled via a matching wristwatch. While certainly a convenient and stylish way for secret agents to control their exosuits, this watch opens the tuxedo up to what I’m going to start calling McGraw’s Problem: “What if someone steals your controls?” In this case it wouldn’t even be that hard. Watches get stolen all the time! I feel like the only reason this never happened in The Tuxedo is because it wouldn’t have made a very good fight scene.

That’s sort of the nature of this genre, though. The fights come first. And within that mindset, the TUX is a masterstroke of exoskeletal design. Its presence allows Jackie Chan to play a comic, fish-out-of-water character while still doing all his customary cool stunts. It’s something a bit different, seeing a character perform all this smooth, choreographed badassery while looking terrified throughout. I also appreciate how, since it’s manipulating the wearer’s body rather than moving mechanically, the TUX doesn’t require a great deal of special effects. It mostly does things a person could do. It’s perfectly tailored – sorry, let’s try that again – perfectly suited – fuck – It’s a great fit – HOW DID I GET TRAPPED IN THIS PUN HOLE?

It really complements Jackie Chan’s film making style, and has an in-universe reason for doing so. I thought that was neat. Moving on.

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Just wanted to quickly mention these cool gecko hands. They let you climb up smooth surfaces. I think they’re pretty great and would probably justify a whole exoskeleton on their own.

IN CONCLUSION

What ever happened to this guy:

marco dS

I don’t think it’s ever said on-screen, but his name is Mitch, and he’s played by Romany Malco. He encourages Jimmy to talk to the woman in the art gallery who he has a crush on, (making that two skele-movies in a row) defends him from a violent bicycle courier, and disappears.

I’ve struggled to come up with a satisfactory explanation for this. Did Mitch originally have a larger role that didn’t make the final cut? Or was he just invented to be Jimmy’s friend for this one scene? Are they friends? Mitch is willing to confront a burly man jumping up and down on a car for Jimmy, but he also never bothered to explain why wearing a ‘Hooters’ shirt while asking a woman out might be a mistake. Who is this man? What are his motives?

It’s an extra shame because Mitch is one of only two named black characters in the movie, the other being James Brown, who… Jimmy kind of murders. And then yells “He fell down by himself!”

So that makes one ‘accidental’ death… and one mysterious disappearance. That Jimmy never mentions again.

Nazi murder eyes Ds

Maybe this movie isn’t so progressive after all!

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

cy puppetface ds

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.

he should be dead ds

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?

deadface ds

That’s fucked up.

 

 

Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema – Batman and Robin

For reasons I no longer understand, I pre-ordered a copy of Fallout 4. More specifically, I ordered it from a warehouse separated from my home by several large oceans.

“I’m in no hurry,” I said.

“Not even that excited.”

Needless to say, the hype train proceeded to hit me like a… train, and I’ve spent the past week gnawing at my fingernails, watching the trailers over and over again with a hand covering the comments section, and just generally getting very little done. I was hoping to get this post done, actually, but I didn’t. And now…

Now it’s sitting on my desk. It’s just… it’s right there.

And the foil’s not coming off until we’re done talking about Batman. Let’s do this!

 

Exo-Skelluloid #6 – Batman and Robin (1997)

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Right! Okay. I’ve read some really sniffy reviews for this movie. No, that’s wrong. People seem angry about it. I’m inclined to think it was just ahead of its time, you know? Comic book movies used to be an embarrassing joke, and fans probably weren’t prepared for a film that embraced that fact quite so heartily. Here in Post-Nolan 2015, it’s a lot easier to laugh along with Joel Schumacher’s camp, pun-flooded adventures.

In that sense I guess you could say this film is kind of like the Fallout: New Vegas to Dark Knight‘s Fallou- No, no, I got this.

For those who haven’t seen it, the film features George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as Batman and Robin, going up against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. Alicia Silverstone turns up halfway through and becomes Batgirl.

The plot’s very basic, but for me it’s the little moments of madness that make it fun. This is a film about glow-stick biker gangs, henchmen sing-a-longs, and Poison Ivy walking on a bridge of glitter-slathered hunks. There’s so much fun wedged in between the boring bits.

Okay. Summarised. Let’s talk exoskeletons!

THE CRYO-SUIT:

blueteeth DS

Gosh it’s pretty. I get the impression it was designed to be made into a toy, but I don’t even mind because the results are beautiful. It’s so opulent. So blue. If it were a DLC paint job I’d pay for it. Shit.

Mr. Freeze’s Cryo-Suit marks a number of firsts in the history of exoskeletal cinema. It’s the first exosuit designed to regulate temperature – keeping Freeze at zero degrees so he doesn’t die – and it’s the first one to be powered by “diamond-enhanced lasers.”

Why aren’t they all powered by diamond-enhanced lasers?

It’s also the first exosuit we’ve seen that can fly.

GIANT MOTH WINGS:

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Or, you know, glide. Still pretty good. The wings are only used once, towards the start of the film, and they don’t really gel with the rest of Freeze’s theme. What’s he supposed to be, some kind of Ice Beetle? Maybe an Articuno?

We don’t get a great look at the wings, but it seems they unfold from a small box on Freeze’s back. Later on in the scene, Batman manages to press a button that detaches the wings from the Cryo-Suit; suggesting that they’re not built into the suit itself but are instead some kind of auxiliary attachment. I wonder how far Mr. Freeze had to upgrade the armour-crafting perk in order to unlo – I mean uhh…

DIAMOND APERTURE:

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The Cryo-Suit is covered in little details like this, and the camera seems to love zooming in on them. Freeze has a diamond intake in his elbow, a satellite-activator in his wrist, and a hidden compartment in his left arm containing the cure for his frozen wife’s terminal illness. To carry all this stuff around with him all the time his Endurance must be unbeliev–

SKELETAL DESIGN INFLUENCES:

ATTEMPT 2

Maybe this is a stretch, but as someone watching these films through an exoskeletal lens… There’s a lot of skeleton imagery in this movie. The front of the Cryo-Suit (left) seems to be sporting a sternum and some vestigial ribs, while Freeze’s henchmen (right) appear to be wearing custom skull-shaped codpieces.

That last bit seems really baffling, right? Mr. Freeze isn’t in any way skull themed. He’s not even death-themed, or pirate-themed, or any other theme that could possibly justify decking out your team with skull crotches.

Okay, maybe having some protective bits over the heart is just sensible exosuit design, and maybe the codpieces are there purely to intimidate the enemy, but… I dunno. I like to think the phrase ‘powered exoskeleton’ might just have passed through one of the costume designers’ minds. That maybe this is the point where exoskeletal cinema becomes self-aware.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

Don’t let your budget control the duration of the film. Batman and Robin contains a genuinely good 80 minute movie, a movie I would wholeheartedly recommend, but that movie is smothered in pointless motorbike races and shots that linger just a couple of seconds too long.

Although I suppose you could argue this obsession with run-times and ‘value for money’ may have sparked the creation of a genre that could offer hundreds of hours of content through some form of vast, open-world format.

whats happening ds

And finally: we’ve learned to ALWAYS buy from a physical games store with your HANDS. GOODBYE!