Sock ’em robots
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REAL Steel used real robots. Oh, there are computer-generated robots as well, of course, in this film about bot boxers in the near future. But for most scenes outside the bouts themselves, the movie crew built 26 (and a half) of what the press materials call “animatronic robots” – a friendly phrase invoking a Country Bear Jamboree folksiness but that’s as redundant as “motorised cars”.
“They were robots, man, period!” marvels Anthony Mackie, who plays an underground fight promoter opposite hustling, hardscrabble robot owner Hugh Jackman. While radiocontrolled and not autonomous,
“They were full-size, eight to nine-foot tall, huge robots that actually moved. It’s hard to focus on someone,” he points out, laughing, “when there’s a nine-foot robot behind them, looking around and moving its arms!
“That first scene between Hugh and I, where he comes to me looking for a fight for (his robot), we’re talking and that robot is moving and reaching over his shoulder, and whenever it was time to say my line I would be so freaked out!”
“When I saw them for the first time,” Jackman said at a news conference for the Set in the near future, robots dominate the ring. film, “there’s a picture of us – me and Dakota (Goyo, his then 10-year-old co-star) – seeing them, and both us look like 10-year-olds. It’s amazing that in this world where I’m used to a green screen and a stick with a tennis ball on it” – to give an actor a visual target of where a CGI element will be inserted later – “that (executive producer Steven) Spielberg actually said to Shawn (Levy, the director), ‘You should really have real elements where you can.’ ... Basically, if they’re not walking or fighting, that’s a real robot.”
Ironically, such discernible physical presence humanises the behemoths in a way you don’t get with the more cartoonlike, CGI robots of the Transformers movies. And that’s thematically in keeping with the low-tech, father-son story at the heart of this sci-fi family film.
“Steven Spielberg had been developing this thing for eight years,” says Levy (the Night At The Museum films). “Once Steven and I met, I took a big swing and said, ‘Steven, look, you’ve been trying to mount this movie a long time’ – there was a previous director (Peter Berg), whose work I like, all goodwill
indeed, the on-screen credit reads specifically that it was only “based in part on” the tale.
Matheson – whom Levy says “is thrilled with seeing the world of his story fleshed out to this extent” – had faithfully adapted Steel for a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, in which broke and desperate ex-boxer Steel (Lee Marvin) and his partner and mechanic, Pole (Joe Mantell), bring their battered bot, Battling Maxo, to a small arena in Maynard, Kansas, where a disguised Steel has to get into the ring and fight a robot after Maxo breaks down.
Real Steel keeps the Midwestern setting and unfuturistic milieu of the original, with Jackman playing the more rakishly down- there – and I kind of declared a new paradigm for the movie: It was not going to be about robots but (would be instead) a human underdog story about a father reconnecting with his son.”
That’s decidedly different from its source material, sci-fi maestro Richard Matheson’s short story Steel, originally published in the May 1956 issue of The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction –