In a rare instance of a strictly accurate credit, Real Steel admits it is ‘based in part on the story “Steel” by Richard Matheson’. From the 1956 story, which is remembered as the source for a 1963 Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin, the film takes the concept of a future in which human boxers have been replaced by robots but the sport remains essentially unchanged.
Neither ‘Steel’ nor Real Steel even try to imagine what robot boxing might be like, which should be easier now thanks to the existence of TV game shows like Robot Wars, but instead project the conventions of old-fashioned boxing movies into lightly science-fictional form. ‘Steel’ is the sort of boxing movie typified by The Set-Up or Requiem for a Heavyweight, showing the sweaty, brutal, desperate side of the sport – the manager played by Marvin has to pose as a robot and last a round with a machine opponent to pay for repairs for his broken-down pug. Real Steel is the sort of boxing movie typified by The Champ or Rocky, in which all cynicism is swept aside by father-son bonding and going the distance rather than giving up – though the film’s storyline, bizarrely, is derived very closely from the forgotten Menahem Golan Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie Over the Top (1987). The film suffers from its extreme predictability, with plot developments tipped off well in advance. As soon as a sullen brat is dropped off with an unwilling father for the summer and they start arguing about everything, it’s plain that the road will end in tearful hugging and parental apologies, just as the insistent writing off of the ‘bot the kid knows is special is an infallible sign that it’ll go all the way to the championship bout.
The film is punctuated by mechanical fights well directed by Shawn Levy, which certainly amp up the excitement, and Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo (Young Thor in Thor) hit all the right notes as the father who isn’t the dead loss he pretends to be and the precocious kid who believes in him (and a robot) against the odds. There’s a hint that Atom is more than just a machine, with Max vowing ‘I’ll keep your secret’ as he seems to show an emotional, sentient response – a line repeated when the deadbeat Dad tries to cram a declaration of love into the cheering crowds of the climax. This shows, yet again, how uncomfortable Hollywood is with actual science fiction as opposed to taking a tried and true mundane formula and dressing it up in s-f clothes. The ‘boy and his robot’ theme dates back to 1950s efforts like Tobor the Great and The Invisible Boy, and has been raised to a sub-genre by a wealth of manga-derived anime which are rather mean-spiritedly caricatured here in the all-purpose ‘foreign’ bad robot team, with Zeus owned by a foxy Russian oligarch and designed by a temperamental Japanese genius. If there’s an absence here, it’s that Atom – nicely-designed and operated – doesn’t register as a character in the way the Iron Giant or WALL-E do, and has to share most of its heroic arc with tagalong Hugh Jackman, who isn’t allowed to follow Lee Marvin by getting into the ring himself but does take over the controls by shadow-boxing his way to the happy finish.