Sci-fi Spotlight: Real Steel

By August 5, 2015 Blog No Comments

Craig McKenzie is a guest writer on the Axanar blog, and runs his own blog here if you like the word-shapes he makes. Craig’s also on Twitter under the handle @kneelbeforeblog if you like the idea of talking in 140 character chunks.


Hello Axanerds and welcome to my first stab at the ever-coveted sci-fi spotlight column. I thought I’d start with something fairly recent but somewhat forgotten by many, with the 2011 robot brawler Real Steel. This film is basically what you get when you cross Rocky with the children’s toy Rock’Em Sock ‘Em Robots. So does that make it Rocky Sock ‘Em Robots? I’m surprised this hasn’t been coined on the internet before now.

I’m not sure what the general feeling on this film is, because I haven’t really encountered anyone who doesn’t like it. Plenty have forgotten it or have a vague memory of not hating it, but outright dislike is – in my experience – pretty rare. I suppose I’m here to try to get to the root of why that is.

Structurally it has a lot that people will find familiar. Anyone who has seen the aforementioned Rocky, or any other underdog sports movie, will recognise the rags to riches formula that informs this narrative; and there have been countless films about a strained father/son relationship in dire need of repair. Put those two concepts together and you basically get Real Steel. These are proven plotlines that have worked well in many other films, so putting them together makes real sense.

It doesn’t end there, though. You can’t just put two narratives together and hope it works out on its own. Director Shawn Levy, together with screenplay writer John Gatins – as well as story guys Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven – have crafted a narrative that manages to engage the audience while making the robot bouts dynamic and exciting. It basically ticks all the boxes in terms of telling what is a fairly typical story.

01 - Our Hero

To make all of this work first there is need of a leading man that people can rally behind. That man is Hugh Jackman, who was probably cast because everyone loves Hugh Jackman. Women want to be with him and men want to be him, there’s no other way to say it. This film banks on the innate likeability of Jackman more than anything else, as his character of former boxer turned robot remote operator Charlie Kenton starts of as kind of a jackass. His introduction in the film has him pretending his phone doesn’t work to get out of explaining why he hasn’t paid his debt to someone, followed immediately by him trying to extort some kids for pictures with his robot. He then makes a bet that he loses, before running away before having to pay it. I have to admit that after all of this even I was having trouble liking this guy, and I count myself as one of the people who finds him irreplaceable as Wolverine.

Charlie is called to court after hearing that his ex-girlfriend has died leaving their son Max (Dakota Goyo) orphaned, so he does everything he can to get rid of that responsibility as quickly as humanly possible. Luckily for him his late ex’s sister Debra (Hope Davis) is all too keen to take the kid, which is great for Max as her husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) is loaded. It’s all good though as I’m sure that both parties are in that marriage for love.

Adding to Charlie’s unlikeability is him basically selling custody of his son to Marvin. He makes sure that Marvin overhears a fake conversation he has with a non-existent lawyer about putting Max in the foster care system. Marvin quietly admits that he’s “up for” adopting Max but it’s made more than clear that Debra is the one who really wants to do this and he’s simply going along with it because… he loves her. Yeah, that must be it. Charlie demands 75 grand from  Marvin to have Max signed over but ups that figure to 100 when Marvin wants Charlie to look after Max until he and his wife go on an all-summer-long rich person holiday. I guess this is a really long way of putting across that this film does everything it can to make you hate this guy in the beginning. Hugh Jackman keeps the audience engaged with his charm and charisma, so his awful attitude never quite becomes a deal breaker.

01 - Our Hero

Of course Charlie has a redemptive arc throughout that links to his son. Their relationship is a train wreck at first, with neither of them having any time for the other. Charlie is short tempered and impulsive, which initially makes him ill equipped to handle the large personality that is his son. In many ways, however, they’re very alike in terms of confidence and stubbornness.

As time goes on they bond over their shared love of Robot Boxing, but it’s a constant struggle to get there and maintain the relationship when they do get there. You won’t find any surprises in this story as it is all well worn ground, but the relationship feels authentic enough that none of it ever seems like a tick-box exercise. Jackman and Goyo have excellent chemistry and they are written with enough depth to carry the story along. There’s not much more to them than short tempered former boxer and precocious child but the suggestion of character depth is there in the performances. For instance, it’s clear that Charlie used to be a man with dreams and ambitions – but something caused his life to become what it is now. I get the impression that the issue has something to do with what caused his relationship to break down, and led to him basically abandoning his child, but the film never really digs into the detail of that.

03 - Dance robot dance

Charlie’s past is mostly alluded to through his interactions with other characters. The most prominent is his friendship with his late mentor’s daughter Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). She puts up with a lot from him, from generally being taken for granted to late rent payments with a slew of excuses surrounding them, but there’s a genuine affection between the two of them, indicating a long history. She clearly knows that beneath his impatient and short-tempered exterior is a good guy – but it takes a lot of work to get at. There are moments in the film where she seems to be at the end of her tether with him but his charm and charisma always pulls that back. One thing I disliked was the suggestion of a growing romance between them, which felt completely out of place. It’s possible for men and women to be good friends without any romantic entanglements.

His friend Finn (Anthony Mackie) also hints at Charlie’s past. He likes and respects Charlie but also knows not to go into business with him. Their natural friendship is one of the less than subtle ways the film tries to convince the viewer that Charlie isn’t as bad as he seems. Similarly, his antagonistic relationship with Ricky (Kevin Durand), who manages to be so much worse than he is, automatically makes him the lesser of two evils.

The film is fairly light on villains, as Charlie’s selfish attitude is the force that needs to be defeated, but the main antagonists come in the form of robot building genius Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and his business partner Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda). There’s almost nothing to these two other than the fact that their horrendously overpowered robot never loses, and when things don’t go their way they start to get really stroppy about it. They are your basic spoiled rich people who use their money to control everything. It’s easy to hate them despite their limited screen time and their role is more symbolic than anything else. I’ll come back to that symbolism in a little while.

04 - The underdog shows what it's made of

World building is where this film slouches slightly. The whole concept of Robot Boxing replacing regular boxing is somewhat suspect as popularity shifts occur within anything frequently but things never die completely. The implication is that nobody actually boxes anymore, and now just robots fight. Fair enough if it’s just another new sport that takes the world by storm, but Charlie talks about his career as a boxer no longer being possible. It strains credibility if you give it any thought.

More than that I found myself wondering what else these robots could be used for. There are all sorts of amazing technology going on here, from the remote controls allowing selection of pre-set moves to voice control, and even mention of an adaptive operating system. One scene shows a fight near some military aircraft, so I wonder if they are used in war. They would certainly be a valuable asset on the battle field as well as the boxing ring. None of this affects the story, but this is the sort of stuff I tend to think about when I’m watching films like this.

The sport of Robot Boxing is at least well constructed, and we get a good overview of many different aspects of it. The underground fights are seen, and some bizarre place called “The Zoo” that seems to be another underground fighting opportunity. Everything from the minor leagues to the championship are seen on the legitimate side, too, so there’s plenty of scope crammed into the two hours.

Taking us through this world is Charlie and Max bonding over a robot they find in the junkyard named Atom. Atom is an old sparring bot designed to take a lot of punishment, but not really dish anything out. After an early win Max convinces Charlie to train Atom with his old boxing moves, so that strategy and skill can win over strength. It’s a bit predictable, but it works well enough. It’d be a boring sport if all someone had to do was build a more powerful robot to win all the time. It shows that skill and strategy count for a lot as Charlie gets the chance to show his considerable talent as a boxer when it comes to noticing – and exploiting – weaknesses to overcome technologically superior opponents.

05 - Get psyched

Atom is well designed, looking far more human than any other robot in the film. He’s much smaller as well, which allows the underdog nature to come across immediately. Slight damage to the mesh on his face even presents the illusion of a nose and smiley face to aid in the humanisation of this non sentient robot. Atom basically serves as the personification of Charlie and Max’s relationship. As they get closer, Atom gets better in the ring. It’s a simple link, but an effective one. Furthering the career of this robot allows them to bond in a way that they never have before, and gives Charlie the chance to rebuild his life after a string of terrible mistakes have gotten him into trouble with a lot of people. It also allows Charlie to reignite his love of boxing and work his way back to the good guy he used to be.

There are some strange suggestions throughout, however. Some moments in the film suggest that Atom is actually thinking for himself. It manifests in simple things like the way he appears to look at Max, or only springing back into action as soon as Max seems distraught in the final fight. It could be clever trickery making me project human characteristics onto something inhuman, but these moments do at least seem to exist. Not to mention the suspicious nature of Farra Lemkova and Tak Mashido attempting to buy Atom, and being so adamant about it. It could be that Atom is some kind of discarded prototype that Tak Mashido thought was long gone.

Naturally there’s an end bout to build up to, and in this case the underdog Atom goes against the reigning champion Zeus. The design of Zeus is absolutely ridiculous. It’s a hulking monstrosity that is bigger and stronger than any other robot out there, so of course Atom makes short work of him. The symbolic nature of the Tak Mashido and Farra Lemkova characters really come into play here as they – along with Zeus – represent the arrogance that Charlie is battling against throughout the film. Atom represents him being humbled by working with his son, so it basically becomes a symbolic battle to show that humility is a stronger trait than arrogance.

In all of the Robot Boxing matches the action is competently handled. It’s clear, easy to follow and appropriately exciting. The film smartly spends a lot of time building audience investment in the characters so that when the sequences involving robots punching each other happen it feels like there are some stakes attached. I found myself rooting for underdog Atom despite the fact that he’s a human controlled machine; what he was fighting for was always interesting, and constantly at the forefront of my mind. I found the two main league fights in this film almost as satisfying as some of the more celebrated Rocky franchise bouts.

The most satisfying sequence by far is when Atom’s voice recognition breaks and Charlie needs to shadow box from outside the ring in order to finish the fight. Atom copies his moves exactly so he has the benefit of Charlie’s experience, speed, and skill against Zeus. Charlie helping Atom fight this way could act as a metaphor for him fully committing to having a relationship with his son and really opening up. Boxing always seemed like a sore spot for him throughout the narrative, so his willingness to dust off those old skills for the world to see signifies a massive change in his attitude, and proves that he is still relevant in this changed world.

06 - Charlie fights...sort of

Also, it’s just a really exciting fight. In many ways it could seem ridiculous, as it basically amounts to Hugh Jackman standing around throwing punches against thin air, but the whole thing is staged so well that it all works. Careful consideration is given to making sure that Charlie stays in Atom’s eye line so that his moves can be copied, and it’s immensely satisfying to see Tak Mashido knocked down a peg. Yay for the little guy! The only thing that lets the fight down is the commentary. Lines like “Kenton must have hardwired this bot with the will to go on” just make me cringe, but if you try to ignore that and just enjoy the robot vs. robot carnage then it’s a great time. Danny Elfman’s excellent score really helps build the atmosphere of excitement.

Being only around four years old I doubt this film is considered a sci-fi classic just yet, but I do think it’s worth a second – or first – look as for whatever reason it has stuck with me and I revisit it often. It’s entertaining and silly, but there’s a lot of heart buried under the layers of steel. The film is well constructed and makes good use of a talented cast to deliver something worth watching.