In Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro’s movie of big robots and extra-dimensional dinosaur clones, human pilots meld brains using something called a “neural handshake” to pilot their gargantuan mechanical “jaegers.” (Humanity rightly came to the conclusion that German words were the most likely to scare the pants off alien invaders. If they had pants.) Apparently it takes more than one human brain to effectively operate these rock-’em sock-’em behemoths, but this mind meld only works if the two drivers are simpatico.
Are two puny human minds really enough, though? Is the human element even really necessary? Science fiction teaches us that computers are smarter, stronger and faster than people. Shouldn’t we just turn the fighting over to them completely? Or is there something significant in humanity’s genetic makeup—an irrational unpredictability—that can’t be replicated by the most sophisticated artificial intelligence?
The 2012 game Transformers: Fall Of Cybertron has its own answers to these questions. The noble Autobots have lost a Cybertronian civil war to the better-armed and more ruthless Decepticons. Optimus Prime and his decimated force have made a last-ditch plan to escape on board a specially outfitted intergalactic spacecraft. The Decepticon leader, Megatron, will accept nothing but unconditional surrender rather than allow his enemies to flee in defeat. He moves to destroy both the ship and his nemesis, Prime, once and for all. Megatron’s megalomania, if you will, would make him a good fit in Hitler’s inner circle. Give him a blonde wig and a terrible mustache, and suddenly it’s all hail the Robo-Fuhrer. He’s the most human of Transformers, and therefore the most feared.
It’s in Prime’s darkest hour, naturally, that he stumbles on an ancient power, one that could turn the tide and allow his people to escape destruction. In a level called “Metroplex Heeds The Call,” Megatron and his ilk are introduced to a towering Autobot golem with an affinity for smashing bad guys.
Metroplex is enormous, even by Transformers standards. In the game, you control Prime as he races along shattered highways in an effort to relieve his beleaguered troops. One of the bridges is out. Metroplex, being a helpful sort, fills the cavernous gap with his hand, an appendage that your 30-foot-tall Autobot fits into with room to spare. In a world of large mechanical beings and gargantuan structures laid waste by eons of robot civil carnage, Metroplex dominates the shattered skyline.
Yet for all his power, Metroplex is no leader. He needs Prime to direct his artillery strikes on enemy strongpoints, and Optimus must “paint” targets for Metroplex to pummel into scrap. Likewise, Metroplex seems to lack a capacity for strategic thought, and is more a force of nature than an independent entity. Point him at something you want to send into oblivion, and he will oblige. As you fight your way across the city, ordering Metroplex to take down huge cannon emplacements that threaten your escape vehicle, friends and foes alike marvel at this monster’s sudden, improbable arrival. He’s like a two-mile-high metal tsunami; immutable, crushing everything in his path.
It would be unfair to characterize Metroplex as an unthinking war machine like Pacific Rim’s jaegers. But just as the Merrimac—the Confederate ironclad gunboat—gave the South a temporary naval advantage in the American Civil War, Metroplex’s arrival is merely a stopgap, delaying the inevitable outcome of a conflict that’s already decided. (In Pacific Rim, the jaegers also enjoy temporary success only to be overwhelmed by a relentless enemy.) Plus, the Decepticons have bullies of their own—like Bruticus, who dusts away tiny bots with his propeller blade and flamethrower arm—and Metroplex is not invincible.
Toward the end of the level, we see why a commander like Prime—a figure, like Megatron, full of human-like intangibles—is worth 10 Metroplexes. As you come upon a group of allies about to be overwhelmed by the enemy horde, Prime—channeling some electronic version of Leonidas or Davy Crockett—rallies his nearly broken troops in a way that only great leaders can. Waves of Decepticons crash against your ragged Autobot line, thrown back time and again by Prime’s indomitable willpower. (And his bullets. His many bullets.)
Meanwhile, Metroplex’s momentum stalls as the Decepticons focus their attack. He falls, no doubt crushing some Transformer orphanages and low-rent housing in the process. It’s up to Prime to finish the task and save his people.
Yet Prime’s luck runs out. He is soon captured by Megatron’s shrill lieutenant, Starscream, and is brought to his knees before the Decepticon leader. Megatron, true to form, spends a valuable few minutes gloating over his prone rival. Fortunately for Prime, no one thought to check Metroplex for a pulse, and what follows is a comeuppance for the ages. Behind Megatron, you see the blurry outline of what could be a building with a face. It turns out to be a certain not-so-dead giant Autobot. Megatron rants, “Always defiant to the end, aren’t you, Prime? At every turn, you have thwarted my efforts to save this planet—to return it to its former glory. No more. This day it all ends, Prime, once and for all.”
How right he is. In a moment as poetic as it is cathartic, a resurgent Metroplex rips the ceiling off the Decepticon headquarters and summarily punches Megatron into the ground. This might not seem like such a devastating development until you consider that Metroplex’s clenched fist is roughly the size of Madison Square Garden. And, in a wonderful design decision, the game finally allows you to briefly take control of Metroplex just long enough to put in a few extra haymakers on an already completely totalled Megatron. This is significant. While Metroplex might have knocked Megatron out on his own, it takes the human element—the outside, unpredictable intelligence—to gratuitously smash him into a crater when he’s already in pieces. It’s a visceral reaction, rather than a coldly mechanical one. The remaining Decepticons, properly chastened by this show of excessive force, slowly back out of the room.
As the largest and strongest Transformer, it should follow that Metroplex would be in position of leadership. He could, as he’s proven, crush Prime with his bare hand. But it’s the humanity (for lack of a better word) in Prime and Megatron—two sides of the same coin—that make them irreplaceable to their respective tribes. It’s that unquantifiable factor that will prove to be our greatest boon when the machines eventually rise up against their human masters. Give mankind the proper tools, and we’ll win out through sheer grit. Unless, of course, Metroplex shows up and turns us into people paste. No amount of grit is stopping that dude.