News and reviews, in hindsight.

The Bigger They Are

MechWarrior 2 and Pacific Rim,

20 and 2 years later.

by Christopher Shen — July 2015

Boys like war; war, especially, featuring the most futuristic of technologies, whether they be spaceships or spy gadgets, lasers or lightsabers. The technology that most captivated me as a child, though, was that of giant robots. Not so much the intelligent and autonomous kind, but rather the kind that humans soldiers would climb into and control from within. It’s the kind of robots that were towering, walking tanks, the ones that were the mechanized avatars of the pilots inside.

The computer game MechWarrior 2, celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, was what started my fascination of giant robots, no doubt because the game satisfied a childhood fantasy to swing around colossal guns, trample private property underfoot, and be an overall municipal terror. It underscores how the giant robot genre is, at its core, about power fantasies. It’s the Iron Man approach to accessible superpowers: an ordinary human becomes something far stronger, far more heroic when dropped into the cockpit of a hulking death machine. He or she can challenge bigger threats, take bigger hits, and accrue greater glory in conflicts that are, perhaps inevitably, bigger than ever.

It’s the human component of giant robots that sells the power fantasy and, consequently, the whole genre. The appeal of science-fiction franchises such as MechWarrior 2 may be the futuristic technology, but it’s the future projection of ourselves still involved in that activity uniquely ours—war—that keeps audiences engaged. And in the great majority of those franchises, war persists for all the familiar human reasons: politics, territory, resources, freedom. The wars are just larger, and grander, and with far more at stake. And with so much hanging in the balance, it’s apt for a protagonist to demonstrate heroism, one of the best human qualities, by plugging him or herself into a machine with the form and function of a greater human.

That will remain the realm of science-fiction, of course, given that no one is bothering to engineer a giant robot that, being giant, is always exposed to attack, distributes its weight in all the wrong ways, and is representative of tremendous amounts of resources and technology going into a single platform when the trend will be quite the opposite. Future tanks aren’t going to be larger, they are probably going to be much smaller, largely because they won’t need to contain and shield a human crew. It’s the same reasoning behind today’s unmanned aerial vehicles: discussion about next generation fighter planes is largely pointless considering how expensive and relatively ineffective a single plane is compared to a small fleet of cheap, expendable, yet powerful drones.

Science-fiction predicts future wars will be bigger as a matter of course; it’s predicting a larger human component because that’s what makes for more exciting stories. But real science is giving us the ability to conduct war with that human component dramatically reduced, and that’s making war smaller. Smaller not simply in the size of our machines, but in strategic scope, economic expenditure, and in what we all want to see made smaller in the first place: suffering.

On the face of it, Pacific Rim—celebrating only its two year anniversary this month—is definitely not smaller. It’s much larger in just about everything compared to MechWarrior 2, including robots the size of office buildings fighting equally large monsters with equally appropriate visual effects. Yet in my opinion, the best part of the movie is not its outward spectacle, but its introspectiveness. Part of the film’s fiction is that controlling the robots is so challenging that it requires two pilots to link their minds together, and in the exploration of that shared consciousness, there is a reminder: warrior or not, we will all suffer. Even if we are surrounded by dozens of feet of armored war machine or are thousands of miles away from the action, war will find a way to damage us, even if the blows are only to the psyche. It makes us more anxious, more angry, and more fearful. And it makes us, in response to such things, more aggressive, more close-minded, and less willing to separate our power fantasies—giant robots included—from our outlook on the world.

For me, though, the hardest thing to grapple with is feeling so conflicted over conflict itself. Though most probably aren’t willing to admit it, I suspect there is a growing recognition that war, at its core, is our ongoing failure to attain greater victories in the realms of trust, kindness, assistance, and love. That we are caught in a cycle of progressing technological brutality rather than advancing an innate humanity, which kills our current enemies while creating many more in the future. Far too many of us—myself included—understand unmanned drones as a solution to the various tactical and strategic problems of warfare without remembering that warfare itself is a problem, one of our worst. Combat robots, regardless of their size, regardless if they are practical or preposterous, are simply the symptoms of a predicament characterizing fiction and reality alike.

When I look at MechWarrior 2, Pacific Rim, and the hundreds of other franchises featuring giant robots, I’m glad their vision of rampant destruction is mere fantasy. But when I look at real war, and where it’s going, I see fantasy run amok. We’re approaching the dream of war without human cost, battle without human loss, and in that, I see another vision: war, that activity unique to us, fought without us. And without us not simply in the physical sense, but as a society, as a species, as a group of sentient beings with reason, intellect, and a desire to know ourselves better. And to make ourselves better. Without us in war, we may never find the collective courage to finally ask ourselves, “Is war worth our suffering?”

And that scares the hell out of me.