Robot Roll Call: Art Design in SF

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The look of a work of scifi is the first of everything. It’s the first thing that drew me into the genre, it’s the first thing I think about upon surveying each new thing.

There was a very egotistical patch of this very podcast not too long ago — moments where I alternatively talked extensively about myself and put forth pretty out-there theories about making the world a better place. But that’s part of the ongoing journey, right? Stumbling, getting up. The getting up part will be soon, I promise, but for now, I just have to halt myself before reviewing my past, because who… am I?

The relevant thing I should mention without spiraling is just that I’ve been somewhat existential lately, as a scifi fan, because I look around at people so excited for Star Wars and Game of Thrones and Marvel, and they’ve all found this thing that they can latch onto and can continue to observe/practice. I’ve always thought that I — and believe me, I think about myself almost constantly — have never really had that because of how I entered science-fiction.

If you have listened to the podcast before, and I recommend you do, you’re probably thinking ‘what about Ghost in the Shell? You hypocrite,’ and it’s true, and I’d add Metroid to that list — Ghost in the Shell and Metroid are things that will always interest me. If ever they appear in discussion on the Internet, I will swerve to stand at attention. But Ghost in the Shell is endlessly frustrating because it is inhuman on purpose, such that you’d never call it a drama, which is the tonal genre that entertains me the most (as opposed to comedy or suspense thriller, which is what Ghost in the Shell is), and then Metroid? Christ. Same thing, much more severe. But of course, that’s just speculation, because I’ve never completed a single Metroid game, and I’ve attempted six of them. As I know I’ve said earlier, there are no puzzles in Halo and Gears of War

So I’ve beome kind of a freelance fan, or a free agent or something, because I see personally appealing things in pieces, scattered all over the scifi landscape. The look of that robot, in this crappy movie, the production design in this game I’ll never play… And a direct example of this halting fandom frustration is the subject of this episode — robots.

In essence, I believe my foray into the genre came from Terminator, which are two great films, but specifically the first five minutes of either. That shit is the bomb, and I see similar things in fits and starts elsewhere. It couldn’t have been something like Star Wars, which is ubiquitous (not an issue at all, I’m really excited for The Force Awakens), it’s robots and ground-based future warfare.

And so I say I love robots, and I want to see more robots, and there are a ton of robots out there. Super robots.

You know what I don’t like?

Perhaps that’s a misnomer, because beyond Evangelion and the Michael Bay Transformers (both equally exemplary), my experience with super robots is very limited. After Kill la Kill, I watched the first two episodes of Gurren Lagaan, and I’ve always been interested in Macross but the prospect of starting it is a bit intimidating, and then you double down on that anxiety for Gundam.

I think they’re too anthropomorphic, it’s almost a completely different thing. Such that there are super robots, and then the robots I’m talking about today, which have no classification, however informal.

Today, finally, we’re talking about Crying Wolf from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Legion from Mass Effect 2, Robocop 2 from Robocop 2, and the Cyclon Centurion from Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. That list feels almost exhaustive, leaving only what, Terminator, and then weirdo movies like Virus and Saturn 3…?

Crying Wolf

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Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which is in a tradition of well-titled Metal Gear games, among Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain, is a game that was met with what we call universal acclaim when it was released back in 2008. It was like a Quentin Tarantino movie, it was the next thing by this guy everybody likes but nobody understands. MGS4 was hailed for its graphics, which were the best on any system of the time, barring what Crytek was doing on the PC, and it was this epic, metatextual conclusion to a series that defined or redefined video-game storytelling, depending on who you ask.

But looking back, I think fans and critics have kind of soured on it, especially in the new context of Metal Gear Solid V, which even its detractors have to admit has perfected the series gameplay. MGS4’s gameplay was relatively non-existent, and the ridiculous story wrapped everything up in a surprisingly traditional manner, given the narrative ambition of MGS2.

Granted, I can’t offer my own opinion on the matter, because although I’ve played several hours of MGS4, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. Certainly I’ve played games with better cutscenes, but I really liked what I saw in a cinematic sense, particularly Snake’s encounter with the GEKKOs, which are also really great robots.

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Bubble butt — sexy! Which part’s the beauty, amirote

That I am terrible at Metal Gear Solid (and stealth video-games, and video-games) has been brutal to me, because it looks so cool, and the analyses people are able to pull from each title have been fascinating. But the look, really — I’ve often stated that Yoji Shinkawa is my favorite artist, and although I haven’t been in the biz long enough to back that up, I’ve fallen in love with his work even from the other side of the window.

It’s first of all the approach to military science-fiction, which is like a high-tech James Bond, and approaching Ghost in the Shell, but less futuristic while also being less urban. There are deserts and jungles in Metal Gear Solid, and the corresponding hardware. Tanks and assault rifles, but also bipedal nuclear weapons platforms. So there’s this grounded but extrapolated feel that I appreciate as a foundation, and from that, which we attribute to Hideo Kojima anyway, Shinkawa tends toward this biomechanical feel.

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In HD

But because it’s near future, familiar, it’s not quite HR Giger, it’s just a smoothness to the metal. The GEKKOs are these big walking tanks that look like tanks standing on two long, almost ladylike legs. It’s creepy but also really cool. I also really like Metal Gear RAY, but the design in this game that captured my heart the most is Crying Wolf, one of the girls gone wild of the Beauty and the Beast Unit.

The Beauty and the Beast Unit caught a lot of flak even when people liked MGS4, because they’re part of a tradition with the series, where there’s a new boss unit Snake has to fight — FOXHOUND, the Sons of Liberty, and the Cobra Unit in the prior three games. Each had their notable members, like Psycho Mantis and The End, or were just batshit on the whole, like the Sons of Liberty, but the Beauty and the Beast were without personality, and this is by design.

Just like with Quiet, I suppose, and the demented sex politics of that character may have begun here (they didn’t). The story is that each of these four women in the BB Unit are somehow traumatized by war, and they have taken on these robot suits that somehow express their emotional response. The Raging Raven is filled with Rage, the Laughing Octopus can’t stop laughing, and the Screaming Mantis… I don’t know. But the idea is that they are blank imitations of FOXHOUND members, and so they take on a thematic and not dramatic role.

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Exhibiting wolflike traits, as running on walls

As a child, young Crying Wolf was hiding from enemy soldiers who burned down her village. She and her baby brother, whose crying may have alerted the ruthless killers, so Crying Wolf had to put her hand over his mouth for an extended period of time. The soldiers passed, and she looked back to see that she’d killed her brother. Which might make you roll your eyes, but it’s actually the most sedate among the BB backstories, in this M-rated soap opera.

So Crying Wolf doesn’t say much, she just weeps, even as she’s roaming around trying to kill Snake in the Alaskan winds. Her suit of armor resembles a wolf, in that the back is arched and there are four legs, but the head is not wolflike, such that she doesn’t end up looking like a Zoid, despite the rail gun on top. She’s got that drone camera ball thing, embedded inside a neck.

I absolutely lack for words and always have, but she looks so cool. Even the Beauty herself, she’s got a cool mask even. But the Crying Wolf armorsuit (to use Metroid Prime terminology) is transcendent. It’s got the smooth dark plates over the muscle-like texture of the legs — overall, in terms of color, it’s pretty sublime for being basically monochromatic. It might just be the glossy iPhone look, but I dig that for robots. Which is good, because that’s reality, man. That’s real. That’s coming.

Legion

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The first Mass Effect was constructively criticized for its cinematography, where it’s just two-shots, medium, each and every time, but that never bothered me. The only moment that did was during Eden Prime, when Saren tells a geth to set the charges, and it’s framed over Saren’s shoulder, and looking down at the geth, where only its head is really in frame.

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It’s Darth Vader coming onto Leia’s shuttle, where he has the two stormtroopers on either side, so you can tell right away that he’s the big bad, but… Saren’s only a turian. And the geth is a geth, you know? These are supposed to be the scourge of the galaxy, an imposing robot race — and part of why that’s so necessary is because as we learn in Mass Effect 2, they’re gentle giants.

I understand why some people didn’t like the whole Arbiter switch in Halo 2, but I loved it to death, even beyond the thematic depth it carved into what could’ve otherwise been a pretty dumb shooter series. Part of why I like it so much is because the Elites are cool-looking, and so yeah, I’d rather be friends than enemies.

The same thing happens with the geth, and it’s actually very similarly structured between the two trilogies — the second entry has this ambassador, and then by the third entry there’s legitimate alliance. And I couldn’t have been happier, although your total ally-time with Legion is very limited, especially if you’re trying to save all the crewmembers in Mass Effect 2.

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But that doesn’t stop him from being memorable. I think for fans, Legion outputs this kind of genki genkiness, because he doesn’t know what’s going on. I suppose it also might be easy to anthropomorphize him, given that almost every alien in Mass Effect is based on the same humanoid model, but the geth have those double-jointed legs, like mini-chicken walkers, and their heads are quite unique.

It’s a lot like Crying Wolf — it’s an abstractly shaped head, without any real-world analogue. Unless of course you count lampshades. I don’t know, there’s just something so aesthetically pleasing about the geth, and the head is the centerpiece. This is where I begin to feel like Tom Haverford with the painting — there are shapes that I like, and it all relates back to what will strangely enough become a recurring theme here: dinosaurs.

My favorite kinds of dinosaurs are theropods, of course, and specifically those in the Spinosaurus family. Suchomimus was my running joke in the seventh grade, and if you’re wondering how that could possibly be a joke — that’s just how good I was. But it all came from a genuine place, you see. The long snouts, the neck. There’s something streamlined and cool about that, and if you can resemble that with a metal face, you’ve wormed your way into my heart.

And also like MGS4 there’s this smooth melding of organic and metal, or rather a styling of the metal that gives it an organic feel. His arms and hands have an organic look, and then he’s got these weird tubes running through his body. Legion was blasted apart by a rifle on Eden Prime, during his Shepard investigation, so there’s this ragtag aspect to his look. So we see those tubes, we see what keeps him together.

For example, the N7 armor, and that’s great, which gives him an asymmetrical look, and that shoulder armor is also what made Saren unique among turians, alongside the indoctrination scarring. But we didn’t know what that was back in the precocious days of 2007. Nor did we know that indoctrination actually kind of undermines character, but that’s okay.

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I like how some geth are white, and some geth are big, and some of them jump around like the little enemy-types in all games. It’s a little bestiary, which is something the creators of Gears of War 2 talked about during the expansion of enemy types for their sequel. Cliff Bleszinski talked about having this chart of dinosaurs when we was younger, and you had the small little dinosaurs who were maybe dog-sized, and then the big ones as tall as buildings. He felt that a good roster of opponents would have this range of shape and size, and I think I agree with that. I mean, Aliens is a good movie, but imagine if there was a greater diversity of Aliens. That’s what we’re hoping for with each and every new Alien property that comes out…

But Legion is not a monster. These comparisons are wrong and hurtful. So much so that it’s easy to forget sometimes that Shepard killed so many geth in the first game. I mean, maybe not for you, but anyway, this is where the last concern comes in. It’s with that standard humanoid model that means the volus aren’t playable until ME3 multiplayer, and all human men and women have identical physiology, per their genders.

It means that as enemy types, the geth have to fire rifles, because they don’t have weapons built onto them, and they’re soldiers who have to operate over distances. This is where I might lose you, if I haven’t already. I don’t even know if I can explain this in a way that makes sense to myself…

Well, it begins with dinosaurs, and how things were structured in my mind. I don’t like the idea of monster soldiers, for whatever reason, the anthropomorphization of aliens or robots. My preferred antagonism is horrible pouncing and biting — like raptors, or Aliens. So when I look at something like a geth, I’m hoping it’ll be more like that, but it can’t possibly be. So there’s some disappointment there, but it’s a broader disappointment to the truth that horrible pouncing and biting is not as useful for enemies as guns.

It’s just like… guns belong in the hands of soldiers, because they’re smaller than the monster, so why would the monster have a gun? But, if you’re gonna give the monster a gun or a weapon, make sure it fits. Tolkein orcs waving their jagged swords — that works. I believe that in the first and third Mass Effect games, the geth use specific geth pulse rifles, and so that’s a way to do it — at least design the gun around the creature.

What you can’t do is have Necromongers with their knight armor and pistols. Glek — for reference, that is the antithesis to my preference preoccupations. I tell you, it’s a physical thing, my reactions to these things. That is possibly why it’s been difficult for me to articulate these points.

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The artists behind the geth went through a number of designs, some more organic, some more mechanical, and they ended with a nice blend, I think. The additional aspect that makes Legion work is his character, and unlike any of the others on this list, he’s a great character. There is this respect to the fact that he is a robot, and so he doesn’t really understand basic human communication, like a handshake (though he does know the robot), but he’s also painfully loyal to Shepard. Both of which I suppose contribute to his genki nature.

His arc across the two games is becoming individual, as proof for his species. We can see the evidence already, in that he exhibits particular behavior, and it makes sense, because he’s on the Normandy, separated from the geth hivemind and experiencing new things. The Normandy is all about diversifying one’s life, where in the first game Navigator Pressly and Ashley Williams slowly come around on aliens being on the ship. And so hanging out with Shepard, Legion is able to realize his individuality, his soul, as the player understands that the geth were victims first.

For the record, Legion is not technically male, but he has a male voice actor, and as much as I love the character and everything surrounding it, this is a great example of insidious gender normalizing, or whatever — there’s not even a clever tumblr name for this. But it’s how men come to be the default, and then diffuse that through culture. Genderless things like Pac-Man all the way up to Legion, they’re male after a fashion, and sometimes even subconsciously.

Robocop 2

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Robocop is not a trilogy. It’s a great, great film that seems like it represents a superhero-like formula that could be repeated or iterated on, but as we found, no amount of Frank Miller could get the job done. It’s really mind-boggling that Robocop cannot exist healthily beyond the first movie, but damn if they didn’t try.

It begins with Robocop 2, which Paul Verhoeven declined in favor of greener pastures. It is a terrible movie. This is at no point an Alien 3 scenario, where even the bad sequel can be good on an off-day — Robocop 2 is simply superior to Robocop 3, and Robocop 3 is beyond belief.

It’s not just that Robocop 2 doesn’t repeat what made Robocop so good, the heart of the problem is actually pacing, and structure. The first movie is very economical, it’s an endlessly watchable film that just plugs along. The second movie is ankled by a bad premise.

Essentially, Robocop is becoming problematic to OCP, given the grasp on humanity he began to grasp at the end of the first movie, grasping so with that hell of a grip he’s got. So they’re looking to replace him, preferably with a robot that comes with a remote control. Mistake number one, from what I can tell, is hiring a woman to do the job? Of course, she’d pick a hyper-violent criminal kingpin for the ‘cop’ part of Robocop 2. (Yep, that’s what they call it).

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Noiice

But I think that womanly decision owes more to the ‘satire’ aspect of Robocop 2. But I’m getting ahead of myself. But that’s basically all the plot I have to detail. The whole fucking movie is a setup to the last fifteen minutes, where it’s all about who are we gonna get to be Robocop 2, and it’s gonna be this guy. And then it’s over.

And in the meantime, we have the Uzi kid who begets a well-documented tonal contradiction in the final reel, and the ‘satire’ that begets an uncomfortable cruel streak through the film’s mood. Otherwise, it’s a handsome movie — very well made, very 90s in look and sheen. There’s a polish there, but the story of the movie is so dimwitted and debilitating, no amount of polish can save this turd.

But I mentioned the final fifteen minutes, and I gotta tell you — those are some good final fifteen minutes. In fact, it’s one of my favorite sequences in scifi film. Absolutely wonderful, I love it. And that’s the ultimate evil of this movie. It’s well-made but off-putting, and then it offers me something crazy good at the very end.

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Robot rampage. It’s just like the Brontosaurus in The Lost World, repeated — to completion — in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but with a lot more firepower. And that firepower is an important point.

But first, Robocop 2 is brought to life by stop-motion at the end of that effects’ life cycle, just before Jurassic Park. And indeed, it’s Phil Tippet and his team, and I must say that this is my favorite stop-motion character ever, and there has been nothing but amazing stop-motion characters. I love that effect, and the kinds of movies it’s typically in. But mostly because most stop-motion movies seem to regard dinosaurs.

The effects team on Robocop 2 tried to give the character the sense of an all-American asshole, as they say. Puffed up chest, big arms, that kind of thing. He’s definitely got an interesting head, and it actually resembles an old stapler I used to have. I really like that, even when it opens up and plays a little video of Cain’s virtual face…?

Robocop 2 has all sorts of heavy ordnance built in, far more than Robocop’s leg holster. He’s got that Predator shoulder cannon, something I always enjoy, but probably because of the Predator connection, and he’s got little T-rex arms that do different things, like have some kind of blow-torch.

That’s what’s great about the Robocop 2 design, is that it comes from a sensible place, and that’s law enforcement. I think that Robocop was a much harder-driving satire but without losing its way, and so it made ‘sense’ that ED-209 had these double-machine guns that make hamburger out of office yuppies. Delicious hamburger. With Robocop 2, you can almost begin to see its application on the street, primarily with the battering ram arm.

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That’s really cool, and on top of sits the chain gun. In totality, they form the hand, and it works. It really solves the aesthetic problem of the gun hand, or the arm cannon, which I think generally always looks silly, whether Cylon Centurions, Battle Droids from the prequel movies, or… dare I say… Samus Aran? I mean, she still rocks it, but, I don’t know. Retreating now…

Like with ED-209, they had a few different models for Robocop 2, the hero puppet and a few dummies to throw around or get run over by the APC. In the original movie you had a full-size ED-209, but I doubt you could’ve made that for Robocop 2. It’s a much more intricate design, with all these little pieces and of course those tiny legs which make it seem impossible.

But fans are always coming up with these amazing replica kits for Robocop 2, or Robocain, as you may find it. It’s one of those kind of obscure things that has a dedicated fanbase, and how could you not be, with that face?

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Which way to the beach?

Some of you may know that Frank Miller wrote early drafts of Robocop 2 and 3, and since the final movies deviated from his vision, he adapted his Robocop 2 script into a comic, Frank Miller’s Robocop, which I bought but have yet to fully read. It’s real ugly, and the first thing I checked was his interpretation of Robocop 2 — nowhere near as cool.

Cylon Centurion

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I’ve tried a couple times to watch the Battlestar Galactica reboot, but I find those early episodes pretty grinding. The production design is bleak and boring, and whenever I try to visualize the show I see Grace Park and the guy running through an abandoned city forever, just endlessly, but that perception definitely owes to a disrupted pace. It sounds like such a fascinating show, especially since the ending gets all metaphysical. I want to experience that, and I want to experience a TV drama about people fighting robots in space.

That I can’t seem to connect to this show is a work of cosmic laughter, but alas. For the rest of you, BSG might still be interesting, especially for viewers of the SyFy Channel, which is only beginning to recover its dignity this year, with shows like The Expanse and Childhood’s End. Talk about a delayed response…

When BSG came out, it was such a critical hit, a Peabody award-winning show considered by some as the best on television. We had never seen science-fiction like this — character driven, dark, and politically allegorical. These days I tend to think that Game of Thrones is the tonal successor in terms of genre, but the difference, as has been noted elsewhere, not just me, is that Game of Thrones is appropois of nothing. Interesting, and with a definite thematic exploration, but it’s not particularly thoughtful.

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Hey thar good looking!

The SyFy Channel and NBC Universal attempted to start a trend by capturing what made BSG so successful, and it’s so funny, because they whiffed — hardcore. They completely misinterpreted what made BSG great, and you can see it in the shows they rolled out in its wake: Flash Gordon, V, The Bionic Woman. Each a remake of an older scifi property, each a more grounded approach where they clipped the eaglemen wings.

I think where we are now, that mistake wouldn’t happen again (a similar thing happened after Lost: FlashForward, The Event, and The Nine), where it’s generally understood that quality is what sells, that nobody would’ve cared about the Galactica reboot if it was poorly written. I think that’s the great lesson Hollywood has taken away from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Iron Man worked because it was well-written (enough at least to attract someone like Robert Downey Jr.), so why don’t we get Joss Whedon to write and direct The Avengers?

But anyway, I suppose this prestige atmosphere the show enjoyed demanded a redesign of the cylons, among other things, and while I can appreciate the big silver ones in the original show, what really caught my eye was the darker hue on the Blood and Chrome cylons. I don’t know, there’s something more animalistic to those, at least in the promotional images I’ve seen.

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A good silhouette

Blood and Chrome is funny because it was a webseries, but now pretty much just exists as a movie. But I really want to see it because it has a great sense of art direction, more so than the series itself. That said, I really just like the Cyclon head, and I think that that becomes the theme for this episode, is robot heads. One of the reasons I don’t have a taste for super robots is because a lot of the time they’ll have human-like faces, and I just don’t understand that. I mean, additionally, it’s that they’re more like vehicles, even the Landmates from Appleseed — definitely cool, but not something I obssess over. In another life, perhaps.

But the Cyclon has that kind of long face thing going on, and the abstract nature of its head, and of Legion’s and Crying Wolf’s, and Robocop 2’s stapler head, is what makes this general robot appreciation so frustrating. It’s hard to pin down, and hard to replicate. A genre cannot arise here, and so I can’t develop a language to ensure the future continuity of these great designs.

This podcast episode is my attempt to begin that work, and I vow it will not be my last. In future installments of this series, I’ll most likely take a look at General Grievous and the Terminator endoskeleton, cyborgs who begin to approach human, but are still abstract enough to have a sense of art to them.

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