Why Real Steel Is Not "Robot On Robot Porn"

Last summer, io9 headed out to Detroit's Cobo Arena for a set visit to the upcoming Hugh Jackman robotic boxing flick Real Steel.

In this cavernous arena filled with dozens of cheering extras, director Shawn Levy gave us the scoop on why this film isn't simply "machine pornography" or Rock'em Sock'em Robots.

Real Steel is based on Richard Matheson's short story "Steel," which was adapted for a 1963 Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin. In this modern update of Matheson's tale, Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a down-and-out boxer whose been ousted from his sport by hulking robots.

To make ends meet, Charlie and his young son Max (Dakota Goyo) take their mechanical pugilists to amateur fight clubs — a.k.a. the "county fairs, abandoned car factories, the post-industrial detritus of the American landscape" — with hopes of scoring big-money bouts in the World Robot Boxing League.

Real Steel occurs in the year 2020, so — barring the robo-boxers — the filmmakers added only minor embellishments to make this fictional future resemble the present. Certain appliances may look advanced, but there won't be flying cars. Similarly, Levy was clear that Rosie the Robot will not guest star:

We designed twenty [robots]. They all have very specific individuated aesthetics. They don't talk, they don't express feelings, they are controlled by humans and do not walk around in the streets. This is not A.I. They are not servants or butlers. It's not a mechanized society; it's a sport. They're controlled [...] by people in their boxing corners.

Why Real Steel Is Not "Robot On Robot Porn"

The film's robots include the dirty-fighting gladiator Midas, the state fair brawler Ambush, and the shogun-inspired Noisy Boy. In the high stakes WRB, the human handlers are just as famous as the machines. For example, Noisy Boy was built by wunderkind roboticist Tak Mashido, who comes out of retirement to construct the indestructible superbot Zeus for a Russian oligarch investor.

Zeus represents the second generation of machine fighters. Just as human boxers retire, robotic boxers are consigned to the landfill. Later in Real Steel, Charlie and his son discover Adam — a G1 sparring robot — in a junkyard and rehabilitate him. Levy hinted that one of Adam's most valuable programs is his "shadow mode," which allows him to emulate the maneuvers of his opponents.

In Real Steel, human boxers are replaced by G1 bots like Adam, who in turn are rendered obsolete by crushers like Zeus. The sweet science has devolved into demolition derby violence; total dehumanization becomes entertainment. Levy was clear that Real Steel required a human drama to differentiate itself from a certain "robots smashing things" blockbuster:

Why Real Steel Is Not "Robot On Robot Porn"

For me I remember [...] I was driving around in DC and then LA and I noticed that the entire ad campaign for Transformers 2, they literally were skipping the humans. I was like, "I can't believe they like, literally don't give a shit about people anymore!" And clearly it worked, right? Neither did the audience! There was Bumblebee, there was Optimus, it was an entire campaign of robots.

Indeed, Levy described Real Steel as the hybrid of Raging Bull and Paper Moon "with a big E.T. component." This philosophy of maintaining a human touch extended to the special effects — Levy recruited members of James Cameron's Avatar team to imbue the boxers with human-like movements:

"We pre-motion captured real boxers, converted them into their avatars, but whereas Avatar then took those virtual creatures and put them in a digitally created Pandora, we go to real fight menus and reinsert the robot avatars into a live-action environment in real time [..] This [technology] didn't exist 10 years ago and there's about seventeen guys out there who invented it with and for Jim. Some of them were on Avatar for nine years, and we're very lucky that we got a lot of them.

When Ben [Stiller] and I did Night At The Museum, you're lining up a dinosaur shot with nothing. Hugh was saying on Wolverine that you're constantly just acting to nothing. Here, you line up a shot and I see Hugh and I see my robot already, and I'm operating my camera to that [...] That's something that's never been done in this fashion.

In Detroit, we witnessed the unfinished battle between Midas and a refurbished Noisy Boy (which you can see snippets of in the above preview). If you like your Robot Jox death matches leavened with the American Dream, Real Steel could be your fix. The film hits theaters October 7.