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We're Being Invaded! A Look At Hollywood's Giant Robot Renaissance

Is the giant robot renaissance in Western media just a happy coincidence? It's no secret, after all, that directors like Guillermo del Toro and Stephen Spielberg share a fondness of Japanese pop culture. Plus, giant robots are just really cool. Maybe mechs have also wormed their way into our collective consciousnesses again  because of their increased visibility in the real world. After all, the technology for them already exists. In 2015, Japan's Dai-Nihon Giken manufactured a Powered Jacket MK3 exoskeleton modelled on the Landmate suits from Appleseed.  This year, an American company called Prosthesis developed an "exo-bionic" mech racer, which a human pilot can sit inside to drive the hefty 15 foot, 8,000 pound beast.

Of course, mechs have far more practical applications than just really intimidating cosplay or fulfilling boy racer dreams. And, Mecha fans will be glad to hear that humanoid, bipedal suits are not only more achievable than you might think, but actually the most advantageous design.

"The human anatomy is incredibly efficient for clambering over rocks and walking along roads," Rob Cunningham, the director of Remote Applications in Challenging Environments at the Culham Science Center told the BBC in 2016. The biggest hinderance, however, is that walking on two legs invites stability issues, which will only get worse with an increased size. We actually glimpsed this problem occur when Gipsy Avenger had a wobbly landing in Pacific Rim Uprising. Despite this, the drone mechs that the Shao Corporation were developing in the film are actually a far less viable option because, as Professor Sethu Vijayakumar of the Edinburgh Center of Robotics explains: "Fully-autonomous systems have lots of problems in terms of sensing and contextual decision-making."

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The size of the mech, however, will always be determined by the scale of its purpose. Until we face huge, alien threats from above or below the Earth, it's more likely that human-piloted mech suits will look more like Iron Man's regular-sized suits than his Hulk-beating ones. "We will get humanoid mechs," Professor Vijayakumar adds. "But, only if we find an application. It is only science-fiction writers who care whether it has two arms and two legs."

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Their infeasibility in the real world only makes their appeal in fictional ones stronger. Our modern environment is filled with machines that are designed to make our lives easier by seamlessly blending into them, invisible and unnoticed. Giant robots are the polar opposite of this dull practicality. Their sheer size demands attention -- they're a spectacle, not a secret. Piloted mechs also have a unique appeal to us because, like any other vehicle, they become an extension of our bodies; giving us the rush of moving faster and hitting harder than our weaker, physical forms allow, while cradling us from harm. As an older, grizzled Bruce Wayne knows, what an ageing and broken body can fail to do, a mechanized Batsuit can make up for.

Perhaps most crucially, though, giant robots capture our imaginations because our perception of them can shift so quickly. Mitsutero Yokohama, the creator of Tetsujin 28-go (Gigantor)  -- one of the earliest Mecha manga -- cites growing up in WWII-era Japan and witnessing first-hand the devastation of Nazi Germany's long-range bombers as an influence on his work. He was also profoundly impacted by seeing the 1931 Frankenstein film; a towering monster with an expressionless face who could both protect and take life. Again, that brief moment in Pacific Rim Uprising when Gipsy Avenger has to recover from a bumpy landing is incredibly evocative of this: one moment, the fear of being squished to death spreads through the crowd below, then -- as the robot self-rights itself -- it dissipates in the next, turned to appreciative elation in the presence of one of Earth's mightiest defenders. From monster to friend within seconds, depending on the will of the person with their finger on the trigger.

Spectacle, nostalgia, fear and heroism all rolled into one? It's no wonder giant robots are the current big thing in Hollywood.

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