Looking Back At REAL STEEL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At REAL STEEL

Alexander Wallace enters the ring.
There’s a saying out there that argues that all sports movies have the same plot. There’s the young protagonist feeling inadequate, then slowly gaining experience and self-confidence, then taking on rivals, then eventually winning out triumphantly. This has been done with baseball and basketball and football and soccer and many more sports that I can’t immediately name. It’s a well-worn plotline, but as George Lucas says:
"They became cliches because they work."
This is a formula that I have covered before, when an enterprising crew of filmmakers applied it to, of all things, medieval jousting. It appeals to something that is latent in all of us, in one way or another: how we all love an underdog. Here, I shall discuss how this formula has been applied to what are essentially souped-up fights from BattleBots: 2011’s Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy and based very loosely on a story by Richard Matheson (most famous for writing the novel I Am Legend).
Let’s not kid ourselves: the plot to Real Steel is as predictable as the sky is blue. Watching it, you get the impression that every significant plot beat is being telegraphed to you from a mile away. At least in my case, I didn’t have a problem with it: the rest of the film makes up for it, and not every movie has to be completely original in every way. Shawn Levy and company saw no need to reinvent the wheel, and it rolls as well as it ever has.

But other things make this film worth the watch. Real Steel is about the mentor and the student who are also father and son. The father is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, looking somewhat strange with hair that short), a retired operator for robotic boxing matches, and the son is Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo). They are brought together after Max’s mother dies and Charlie has to take him in. Max wants to become one of the robot operators, and Charlie is hesitant. But, as the story progresses, Charlie comes around and supports his son to fulfill his dreams. Cliche, I know, but it works.
One of this film’s unsung good qualities is its worldbuilding. Some science fiction stories rely on their worldbuilding as a crutch, trying to make up for a lackluster story; not so here. The worldbuilding makes the story possible, and provides a glimpse into something that successfully suspends your disbelief. We can predict robot boxing easily enough; we cannot quite do the same with underground robot boxing, but considering how much the modern sport of boxing originated in skeevy back alleys, it does make a lot of sense. It doesn’t lean into it much, but you could consider those underground amateur fights to almost be cyberpunk.

Ultimately, Levy et al understand why what William Faulkner said was true:
“The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself”
They have delivered a very character-driven story that simply happens to involve giant robots punching each other until one of them falls down. Real Steel is a testament to how humanity trumps everything, and how it underlies why we bother caring about anything. People are important, even when operating mecha.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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