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!

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Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema – Basket Case 3

When you think about it, isn’t there something just a bit sinister about a powered exoskeleton? Doesn’t it call to mind the skeleton inside you? Remind you that your skeleton might one day want to try being on the outsideTear itself from your meat and imprison you in its unyielding, externally powered bones?

“NOW,” it will rattle.

“NOW WE WILL SEE WHO IS THE SKELETON.”

Powered Exo–HELL–eton #5 – Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991)

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I’d never heard of the Basket Case trilogy until it was added to the list, so for me this just proves that powered exoskeletons are the gift that keeps on giving. If you’re in the mood for something gross and weird this Halloween, I can’t recommend these films enough. They are consistently baffling, and made – I think – with a surprising amount of care and affection.

The first film sets up a familiar premise. Faintly unsettling dweeb Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck, above) checks into a New York hotel carrying a basket. A basket containing his conjoined twin brother, from whom he was surgically removed as a child against his will. Also the brother is a murderous ball of sinew with arms and teeth named Belial. We are just getting started.

Belialintrods

Anyway Duane helps Belial kill a bunch of people and there’s some weird creepy sex stuff. I don’t want to dance around this in any way: towards the end Basket Case (1982) features a fair bit of sexual violence, general camera-leeriness and then to top it all off there’s a rape scene. All solely for shock value, these elements could not be more tacked on to the end of the plot. It’s an ugly final note for what was until that point a pretty fun movie.

The second film felt kind of like an apology for these shortcomings, but then Basket Case 3 goes straight back to fan-service. The director of all three films – Frank Henenlotter – has situated them very much within the ‘exploitation’ genre, and they bring in the bad elements along with the good in that respect. If you’re a fan of horror/exploitation movies from that era I think you’ll probably manage, but yeah. Just wanted to flag that. It’s a shame, because if it weren’t for the trilogy’s treatment of women and people of colour, it would at times come close to perfect, I think.

Anyway in Basket Case 2 they move in with Granny Ruth (Annie Roth) who is delightful and completely steals the show for the rest of the series.

Auntieds

From that point on it’s Ruth and her family of ‘unique individuals’ – rendered in some spectacular prostheses, by the way – murdering their way through all the ‘normal’ people who want to exploit / exterminate them.

From Basket Case 2 onward, the series is two parts goofy comedic caper to every part ‘horror.’ We’re not here to be frightened, we’re here to marvel at the prosthetics, wince at the squishy sound effects, and enjoy Roth and Hentenryck’s performances. Granny Ruth is knowing and charismatic, occasionally pausing to chew some scenery, while Duane is… difficult to describe. There’s a whole range of Duanes.

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Also there’s this one really amazing weird sex thing that is disgusting in all the right ways and completely subverts the expectations of the genre and it’s… yeah. Basket Case 2. Probably the one I’d recommend.

SO BASKET CASE 3 THE PROGENY, THEN: 

I’m sorry this has become such an overview of the whole trilogy, but I do think these movies – particularly the 2nd and 3rd – demand to be read as one text. In Basket Case 3 we witness the birth of Belial’s children, who are the results of the aforementioned amazing sex thing. Henenlotter dives enthusiastically into the creation of some oozy pregnancy horror, and then the babies get stolen and we’re back to the traditional mutant revenge rampage.

Basket Case 3 suffers a bit from following Basket Case 2, and doesn’t do enough new things with the formula to really stand out. Mostly it seems concerned with wrapping up the story of 2, which ended on kind of a cliffhanger? I guess?

That said, while I wouldn’t say it’s the best Basket Case film, it’s still my personal favourite because a) there’s an exoskeleton, and b) it features my favourite scene in the entire trilogy. I don’t want to overhype it (it’s nothing mind-blowing, probably just something that caught me in the right mood) but I also don’t want to spoil what was for me a really great moment; so, if what you’ve seen so far has interested you, go watch Basket Case 3 and I’ll see you after the break.

cornflakes Downsized

OR you could just watch the first 20 minutes, because that’s when Basket Case 3 stops whatever else it was doing and decides it’s a musical now! I know we’ve seen some weird shit in this trilogy, but somehow Annie Roth singing Lloyd Price’s Personality is the one thing that really surprised me. And what a delightful surprise!

I feel like the comparison to American Horror Story is both obvious and apt. Both series trade in gore, comedy and outrage. They also share a penchant for terrible dialogue and a plot that nobody cares about. I will say that Basket Case has twice as much fun in about a fifth of the running time, and that while Jessica Lange and the Name Game sequence continue to be great… Basket Case 3 did it first. Just saying.

Anyway enough being contemporary. I laughed so hard at this scene I teared up a little. I love how every time you think the film’s going to cut away and get back to the story, the song just keeps going. This is what paracinema is all about. You get to the third movie in your low-budget cult exploitation franchise, no one’s pressuring you to take yourself seriously, and you make something that nobody else could make. Something stupid and insane and beautiful.

Unfortunately, nothing in the film’s second half can really match this scene, but at the same time… can you really blame it?

FINALLY, SOME ESCAPED SKELETONS:

Anyway it’s a long story but at some point Duane decides it’d be a good idea to get Belial a powered exoskeleton. It’s hard to capture in stills, so I’ll try to describe it a little bit.

exoskelewideDS

Belial’s exoframe has a buzz-saw arm and a claw arm, two big lights for eyes, and two sets of jagged ‘teeth’ that can swing shut over his face to protect him from gunfire. It walks on two legs, and as you can see on the top there’s a fairly accurate model of Duane’s head mounted to the front. Maybe it’s a little on the nose, but I really appreciate that head. It makes the exoframe thematically appropriate. It’s a surrogate Duane! The Basket Case films and exoskeletal cinema are both about symbiosis, and Robo-Duane here really hits that point home.

There’s also a set of fuzzy dice in the cockpit, which I like to think suggests that for Belial there’s little distinction between Duane and a car. It’s just how he gets around!

ROBODUANEcockpitDOWNSIZED

Also of interest is the power source, which seems to be some kind of big gas-guzzling engine connected to Robo-Duane by a series of tubes. We see Meat Duane tending to it during the climactic fight scene, which gives a sense that Belial’s not entirely independent. The brothers are still umbilically linked… Maybe I’m over-thinking this.

That said, it’s just occurred to me that the square cockpit with interwoven chains and two little doors that swing shut over the opening bares some resemblance to a basket, Belial’s nesting place of choice. Maybe the basket was his original surrogate for Duane, and now the two of them are blending together in some kind of improvised, mechanical manifestation of Belial’s mental state. The internal becoming the external. The external skeleton.

God. It’s an ugly thing, but tell me it hasn’t got layers.

BUZZSAWdownsized

Eventually the police chief manages to break off the Exo-Basket’s buzz-saw arm, and proceeds to try and murder Belial with it. This is the first we’ve seen of this kind of behaviour – probably because none of the other exoskeletons were this fragile – and I like the idea of a character having their ‘limbs’ torn off and used against them. It also plays into the idea that exoskeletons can be dangerous in the wrong hands, which is actually a first for the subgenre because this movie predates The Wrong Trousers!

Truly, skele-cinema is a dynamic and ever-changing field of study.

ANYWAY:

I know I spent a lot of time fawning over the “cultural importance” of Aliens in the history of exoskeletal cinema (and I stand by that, it’s a really good movie) but having seen Basket Case 3, I find myself thinking… maybe the dumb cult shit is more important.

Like I’m sure Edge of Tomorrow is going to be great, I’m looking forward to it, but if this list wasn’t brimming with terrible spy comedies and mutant musical numbers and… whatever the hell Star Kid is… I wouldn’t be nearly as interested in the subgenre. As it stands, a journey into exoskeletal cinema is a journey into the weird, dark corners of film history, and that’s what makes it special. In other words, it’s got:

♫ PER-SON-AL-ITY ♬

(Walk)

♫ PER-SON-AL-ITY ♬

(Talk)

♫ PER-SON-AL-ITY ♬

(Smile)

Happy Halloween everybody.

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.

Powered Exoskeletons in Cinema: Aliens (1986)

This is it everybody. After many moons of waiting, we’re finally here. The third entry in the history of exoskeletal cinema. The first blockbuster to feature an exosuit. The first exoskeletal romantic comedy. Yep, you heard me.

Watching this film specifically for the exoskeletons, the first half hour or so takes on a real will-they-won’t-they dynamic; Cameron teasing us with shots of Ripley and the Loader, pointedly avoiding eye contact as the tension flares. Avoiding Eye Contact They don’t know they’re going to end up together, but we do, and there’s that same gentle frustration as the characters breeze past one another. Ships in the night. After all, Ripley’s just here to make a delivery. She doesn’t notice the Power Loader glancing at her from across the crowded office; but everyone in the audience just knows that in ten minutes they’re going to bump into each other, and the Loader’s paperwork is going to go flying. It’ll bend down to try and pick everything up, pawing clumsily at the floor with its huge, industrial strength claws – until Ripley’s hand plants itself gently at their tip.

“Here, let me.”

POWERED PRESENTATION #3: ALIENS (1986)

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 4.51.36 pm The first two films we’ve discussed in this series were fringe as all hell. We saw a Bond spoof and a Marvel rip-off (both of which I love unreservedly, they are part of our powered external family) but with this movie James Cameron brought powered exoskeletons screeching into the mainstream, and he did it by combining the best elements of his two predecessors.

We’ve already established that The Ambushers wasn’t really about exosuits – instead being about inequality – and Cameron reproduces that structure here. While the Power Loader is certainly an iconic part of the film, it is not the subject or the premise. It hangs quietly in the periphery, waiting to lend a claw in changing sci-fi action movies forever.

I wonder now whether this is the best role for exo-frames to take in cinema. Is their ideal use in film – as it is with human beings – to augment the existing structure? It’s too early to say for certain, but I can say that Aliens makes it work.

Just because the film doesn’t devote a lot of time to the Power Loader doesn’t mean it doesn’t care about it. Cameron combines the minimal screen-time of The Ambushers with Exo-Man levels of tech-fetishism. The camera loves the Loader. Its appearances are crammed with tight close-ups and deliciously clunky audio, the film inviting us to run our hands over the controls of the machine. Feel the weight of those huge metal arms. Weird Hand FixationEarly on we see Spunkmeyer loading a missile onto the Cheyenne. This short sequence serves to establish a masculine workplace environment for Ripley to break into seconds later, but what I really love about it is when Spunkmeyer steps back from the dropship and calls out ‘Clear behind?’ It’s not like he’s worried – he sounds and looks bored throughout – this is just standard procedure. That tells us so much about this world and where exosuits stand within it. They’re completely unremarkable. Routine.

Almost immediately afterwards we see Ripley strap herself into the Loader, something we never got to see in The Ambushers. Here Aliens makes explicit what Ambushers could only (accidentally?) imply: that a woman can do anything a man can.

One advantage the scene from Ambushers has over this one is the element of surprise, but of course we get that too in Ripley’s climactic battle with the Alien Queen. This is the scene that makes me secretly hope James Cameron has seen The Ambushers. In both films, a helpless child (Newt / Matt Helm) is pinned down in an industrial environment, before being rescued at the last minute by a female astronaut piloting a powered exoskeleton. PART B2 SERIOUSLY THOUGH, THE EXOSUIT: I’ve been doing some hardcore academic research on the Alien versus Predator wiki, and it turns out the Power Loader was piloted by a stuntman named John Lees, who was hidden inside it. This makes John Lees the first person to portray an exoskeleton on the big screen. May his soul stomp mercilessly through the loading bays of heaven.

For some of the wide shots, a miniature Loader puppet was constructed. It took five people to operate, and it had a tiny Ellen Ripley doll strapped into the seat. At first I couldn’t believe that all this time Aliens had been a movie with puppets in it, but scanning back over the film I found this little gem: Spunkmeyer Puppet Alt copy2That’s Sigourney Weaver on the left, being 80’s green-screened in front of the Ripley doll, who’s playing Spunkmeyer. This makes Doll Ripley the first inanimate object to pilot an exosuit on the big screen! It’s a testament to everyone involved that the Puppet Loader never takes us out of the action. Not even during the climactic fight against the Queen – a fight I’d now like to look at in depth because it’s important to me. Important to exoskeletons. Let's Talk About ThisDS I mean… wow. Can we just take a moment to look at that image? At how that harsh backlighting merges Ripley and the Loader into one shape? It’s so simple it seems dumb to point it out, but it’s just the perfect way to communicate the premise of a powered exoskeleton through lighting. I love it.

This scene plays lot awkwarder than it does in my head. There’s no background music, just hisses, whirring and grunts. Ripley misses the Queen about as often as she hits. It’s slow going, uncomfortable. We’re meant to feel Ripley’s frustration. The warning lights are flashing in our eyes, the Loader whines with every clumsy swipe, and the Queen’s flailing its teeth half a metre from the camera. It’s such a sincere attempt at tension, it feels revelatory. If this film were made today, I’m convinced the Jurassic Park theme would be playing.

No part of the Loader is wasted in this fight. The claws allow Ripley to grab the Queen in a chokehold, she uses the in-built controls to open the airlock, and we even get to see the welder put to use. The welder… wasn’t foreshadowed, admittedly. Kind of came out of nowhere. But it fits. And flamethrowers!

Look how the welder is attached in such a way that Ripley can operate the controls and melt faces, simultaneously. That’s love, right there. That’s the person who designed this loader saying “I cared.” fire2 Tragically, this is a fight the Loader cannot win. After being pulled bodily into the airlock, (leaving Ripley completely unharmed, what a fucking stupendous exoframe!) the Loader is left to keep the Queen trapped while Ripley opens the doors. As it falls into space, you can almost see it trying to take the Queen with it. But it can’t. Without Ripley it’s powerless.

But hey, it got the job done, and in doing so really demonstrated one of the advantages of exoframes over, say, cyborgs, i.e: that you can climb out of them. The Loader provides the industrial strength and versatility required to keep Ripley alive, while Bishop flounders helplessly from the sidelines. That’s Exoframes: 1, Robots: 0. Just sayin’. Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 6.40.37 pm So the Loader drifts off into space forever. The Hicks-shippers may think they’ve won by default, but I think we all know who Ripley would have gone with had circumstance allowed. Just look at her face. Look at her face and tell me she isn’t mourning the loss of the one thing in the universe tough enough to earn her respect. The only one as fearless. As unkillable. riploadermeme

Eurotruck Diaries #3: Aurora Australis

There should be a word for that apprehension we get, three weeks into a month-long holiday. That feeling of looking forward, and seeing the end.

Tears as it flies

When my family comes home there will be a slideshow. A long one. We’ll spend a good hour of our lives re-living, living vicariously. What motivates us to perform this ritual? Is it for those left at home, or for those returning? The recently bereaved.

Surely it’s to solidify our memories. The best way to remember something is to make up a story about it. By selecting which moments to show, we give them meaning, weld them into our brains. This, we declare, I will remember this.

If we forget it it’s gone.

***

This week there’ve been reports of the Southern Lights showing up as far north as New South Wales. Someone on the radio says this sort of thing only happens once every 11 years or so. I look out my window each night, wishing.

Never Be Complete

Driving a shipment of smoked eels through a tunnel, iTunes shuffles over to “This Is Your Life,” a song composed of clips from the movie Fight Club. 

It’s been a while since I thought about that film, so as I sit in my room on a Friday night, driving my fake truck across fake Canada (oops), the lyrics are an unexpected jab to the ribs.

    This is your life. Doesn’t get any better than this.

    This is your life, and it’s ending. One minute at a time.

***

Maybe the best way to immortalise a moment is to have it be terrible. We are experts at re-living disaster. One day on our walk Tiggy starts to limp. She struggles to walk, lurching feebly along the pavement. I carry her home, alarm bells ringing. I imagine the trip to the vet, the waiting. Paperwork. I’m not prepared.

When we get home I look at her paw, and notice a piece of foot that… isn’t. I pick at it and it comes loose, rolling – caked in mud and grease – into my palm. A seed pod, pinky fingernail size, lodged in both front paws. I let her go and she starts dancing down the hallway, fast and energetic. She’s fine.

Later I pull a U-turn on the highway.

Uh Oh

Music is another great way of connecting to memory. A song can take us back to the time when we first heard it, particularly – I find – when the mood of the music matches our own at the time.

What have my family been listening to this month? Will it affect how they remember this place? Themselves?

***

Of course there’s another school of thought, arguing that spending all your time archiving your experiences removes you from said experiences. In order to take a photo you have to not be in it, and so on.

Maybe they’re right. After all, isn’t trying to preserve a moment inherently futile? Our photos won’t last, and neither will we.

***

On a school trip to New York, our bus driver pulls up the intercom.

Take one last look, he says, the city rolling by across the river. We lean into the windows, trying to soak up every millilitre of light. We hold on tightly, for as long as we can, but the bus rolls on.

Later Someone Like You comes on the radio – again. We sing along, and when we look back it’ll seem kinda goofy, but for now we sing from our hearts.

Placid Lake

The themes I choose each week become self-fulfilling prophecies. Once I had the idea to write about aliens, I saw them everywhere. Go for a walk with the express purpose of photographing a certain colour and you will see that colour in places you never would have otherwise.

Maybe we’re not just archiving, when we document our travels, but experiencing a heightened awareness. Crafting our stories as we live them. It’s an easy kind of magic: Wishing, and then filtering reality to make that wish come true.

If we can’t find any Southern Lights, maybe we’ll just have to make some.

***

We can’t remember forever, but equally I’m not sure we can live forever ‘in the now’. It’s for the same reason we can’t live every moment like it’s our last. There’s just not enough energy in the world. We need down time. Time to reflect, to re-watch old movies. To drive our totally real truck to Saskatchewan or wherever.

I'm a bird of the night

The entry’s almost over, and the aurora has not appeared. Maybe I started too late in the week. Time’s been slipping away recently.

Maybe the person reading this could succeed where I failed. Carry the torch, so to speak. Just keep an eye out, skywards. Even though the end is coming, winter’s not over yet. You might see something.

***

However, this is the final entry in Eurotruck Diaries. This time next week my family will already be home, and my search ended. Hopefully I’ll find them before they board their plane, as I do have one last surprise in store… But in terms of this blog, yeah, we’re done.

I’ve had fun doing this. It’s been nice to weave myself into a narrative. Suddenly events have meaning. But I’m tempted to ask: would I have been better off spending this time talking to people? Catching up on the media backlog? Reading?

Would I have been more immersed in my truck adventures if I hadn’t stopped every few minutes to take photos?

Did it work? What do I remember from this month?

What happened?

 

 

Well, here comes July!

intruders

Eurotruck Diaries #2: The Company We Keep

I flag down a nearby security guard. Hi there I say.

Stoney silence.

SternGuy

Hey I’m just looking for my family. Have you seen three people in glasses? Middling to tall in height? Most likely wearing matching lumberjack outfits?

The guard raises a single eyebrow. How old, he asks.

I pause.

Well, it kinda depends what time zone you’re in…

***

Whenever I take pictures of a place, everyone always asks Where are the people? My eye darts to lighting fixtures, architecture and bodies of water. Animals, at best. My photos tell the story of a holiday on a dead planet.

Part of me feels like rectifying this.

So Similar!

This is Okhrana Obristana, my character in Eurotruck Simulator 2. She is both me and not me. We have a strange relationship. She is a Soviet spy.

Starting out with a tiny shack in Hannover, Okhrana set out to buy her own truck and spread her company (TWWWYTT Ltd.) across all of Western Europe. Three months later she has two employees, a proper garage, and is qualified to carry almost every kind of hazardous substance on the market. I am so proud of her.

***

Overall this second week has gone a little smoother than the first. No homework, no cooking dramas. The chickens are swimming in warm, cuddly wood shavings. Mojo hasn’t rolled in anything, and hasn’t left anything for me to step on in the morning. We’ve got a routine, we’ve got systems, I’ve got a fancy coat. Everything’s starting to click.

EVERYTHING BREATHES

People exist in the traces they leave. At the park I find a tiny clipping of purple flowers on the ground. Nearby is a small blue hairband. I picture a secret meeting, a romance fuelled by adventure. A parent’s voice cries out from down the street. They run.

***

We watch the Wallace and Gromit movie – Curse of the Were-Rabbit – and despite being ten years old, I think it’s the best movie I’ve seen in a while. All the different elements of this film interlock in a really satisfying way. Like it’s clear they wanted to play with old monster movie tropes, specifically with a small town going up against a monster that eats children. But it’s a kid’s movie, so what do they do? Swap ‘children’ with ‘vegetables!’

Babies

Then, logically, there has to be a ‘Biggest Vegetable Contest’ to make that relationship make sense, so of course Wallace and Gromit have to work in pest control, which puts them at the centre of the action when a giant rabbit starts demolishing people’s gardens, and then… it’s all just so neatly tied together.

It was also cool to see the film as a continuation of the evolving Wallace and Gromit formula. So much of the stuff in this film feels like ‘classic Aardman’ – the elaborate morning routine, Wallace’s bungling romance, animals flooding the house, technology causing problems – but these elements were only introduced two short films ago. Potentially with the exclusion of A Matter of Loaf and Death, each episode is better than the last. They build on each other. Their history strengthens them.

***

Driving over the Øresund Bridge – that famous Canadian landmark – I look out at the night sky and realise there’s no moon. The water below reflects a light with no source.

Zooming out with my camera to investigate, I notice that I’m being followed by a shadow woman.

SHADOW WORLD

I tell myself I’m safe even though I might not be.

***

I know his name is David even though I’ve never used it. He has a rapport with the other customers – they might call him ‘Dave,’ he might ask how their holiday went – but he and I have built up a stumbling, solemn relationship. I always bring a book, in case we’re alone, and are forced to wait out the cooking process in silence.

I think he noticed when I stopped coming. Now every couple of months when I skulk through his door – looking different but at the same time inherently familiar, stretched – I feel like he’s trying to win me back. He rounds down the price a little. He tells me to have a good night, and in his voice there’s this quiet desperation.

***

At one point Joanne stops by to pick up some lemons. She says hi.

Not Joanne

Traipsing through a local alleyway, I discover that someone has installed a tiny door in their back fence. It’s hinged along the top like a cat-flap, but it’s too short for a cat to fit through comfortably. It could probably allow six largish rats to exit at once, or possibly one komodo dragon.

***

Another week goes by, and Okhrana gets her final hazardous material permit. Flammable solids. To celebrate, she upgrades the headquarters. It’s a huge, gleaming warehouse now; with its own gas station so she can refill between jobs. All this progress in one week. Okhrana wonders at what could be achieved in ten weeks. Years. Decades. How powerful she’d be.

Composite Thing

We get better at what we do the more we do it. Truck driving, cooking, living. We may never reach a point where things aren’t hard, where we’ve nothing to worry about; difficulty has a way of scaling with our own growth. But it’s at least a little comforting, to think some day we’ll be bigger. We’ll wade through our old problems like they’re nothing. We’ll drive our big shiny truck straight through the wall of the UN, and declare that TWWWYTT Ltd – the company that owns all of Europe – is a front for the Soviet Union.

Soviet Union? the US Ambassador will breathe. I thought you guys broke up.

And we’ll laugh maniacally as our company logo extends outwards to reveal a hidden message.

THAT’S WHAT WE WANTED YOU TO THINK!

Thisun

Happy Birthday everyone!

Eurotruck Diaries #1: Somewhere Out There

The first alien is a bundle of thin black cords. Spread out evenly over the pavement, they stretch for half a block before converging around the corner. At first they seem inanimate, but as the dogs and I approach the tendrils pulse, sliding smoothly backwards and out of sight; like an octopus, flowing into a gap in the rocks.

Later that same walk Mojo rolls in shit. A poor omen.

CANADADSCanada is a burst of fresh air after the end-of-semester grind. I drive through pine forests, ride bridges over massive lakes. At night the skies are full of stars, but when you’re driving a truck stargazing becomes something of an extreme sport. Especially if you were to take your hands off the wheel to take photos – that would be an insane thing to do.

STARS1DSFinal assessments are four days of non-stop comic making, and I remember almost nothing from them. Some days I make good progress, and things are good. Other days I make less progress, and I walk through empty rooms, switching off each light with a limp, isolated snap.

***

The second alien lives in the trees. Late one night, Mojo senses a presence, starts growling up at the sky. I look where he’s pointing, manage to make out the shadow of something big looming amid the branches. A massive tail arches gracefully back and forth, with a strength that makes me think ‘Xenomorph.’ I can see something tensed against the tree trunk – clinging perpendicular to the ground, right above my dog – and for a minute all I can do is stand there and imagine it falling.

FRONCHDS

At first I’m confused that all the signs are in French but then I realise: French Canada. So now I have to deal with a language barrier, I guess. I think my sat nav is trying to kill me.

***

Cutting dangerously across a busy highway, I get T-boned by a jeep. The repairs take most of my profits, so it’s an angry drive to the nearest warehouse, where I find out they need someone to ship eighteen tonnes of fireworks. I had no idea you could carry fireworks in this game!

Cargo doesn’t matter in any real, material way. Toxic chemicals never spill, petrol never explodes. But picking and choosing your freight allows you to make up your own story about what you’re carrying, and to whom. I remember getting a job to carry ten tonnes of yoghurt to a warehouse around the block in fifteen minutes. Somebody just really needed that yoghurt, right away.

“There’s no time for protocol!” I roared, slamming my fist into the desk. “People are hungry.

***

Driving through a steep valley, I look up and see a statue of an enormous eagle. It sits on top of its hill, watching the forest and its visitors. I drive past and onward, with no way of explaining what I just saw. Truly, Canada is a land of mysteries.TURUKDS

I never see the third alien. Walking down an alleyway we come across a pile of blue, faintly luminous feathers. They’re scattered over the cobbles and out onto the adjoining street, spread by the wind. The dogs sniff at them hungrily, but I keep walking, scanning the street for movement.

***

We’re addicted to stories, and places are a great way to get our fix. Moving through a space is like submerging your head into a pool of narrative – all those details to make sense of. It’s only when we stay in one place long enough, walking the same paths each day, that the stories start to run dry.

So we get on a plane. Board a ship, drive all night, and when the sun rises we look out over a world of details. The engines in our head start to churn.

***

But aren’t these new, exciting spaces – in the end – just someone else’s boring neighbourhood? This isn’t to say that our sense of wonder is misguided, but rather that travel is a state of mind. Every place has its secrets, and it seems unlikely that they can ever truly be exhausted. Maybe with some effort, we can make a familiar place strange again. My family tell stories of bear cubs, fractions of whales – and I count aliens.

SICK PLANE DS

The level of customisation in this game is amazing to the point of stupidity. You can change your hubcaps, visor, door handles – all in the interest of self expression. Your truck is a story you tell yourself. A story about someone pretending to be Canadian.

***

There’s even a custom license plate you can stick in your front window, allowing you to send a message to other (fictional) drivers. I’ve never had much use for it because oh my god wait wait wait WAIT –

I just had an idea.

SORRYsmallDSSORRYBIGDS

AMAZING. THIS GAME IS AMAZING.

***

The last alien is a big tarp, and I know it’s a tarp. But one night I’m sitting beside the heater, and the wind is rattling against the roof. The beam of a streetlight illuminates a large blue shape, clambering up the steps to my door. It breathes with its whole body, skin shimmering in the dark as it expands and contracts. After catching its breath, the creature stretches upwards at an impossible angle, folding itself inside out, and its insides are an ocean. It laps placidly at the edges of the door, and I think about what a great shape that is for an alien to be. A breathing blob, with an ocean in its belly. So strange. So incomprehensible.

INTHEDARKDS

See you next week!