It Has Robots, But Is Real Steel Real Science Fiction?

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boxing robots from Real Steelboxing robots from Real Steel

Image: Dreamworks Pictures

Ask any two fans of science fiction and/or fantasy to define the line that separates the two genres, and it’s pretty likely you’ll get two notably different answers. There are those who argue that anything that has space ships, or ray guns, or robots, is automatically science fiction no matter how wildly fantastical the rest of the story is; and there are those who argue that the inclusion of “magical” elements is enough to push any story, no matter how otherwise technological it is, into the realm of fantasy. That’s why the Star Wars movies have caused so much trouble: they’ve got the technology, of course, but then there’s The Force — which, let’s face it, is basically magic — and C-3PO and R2-D2, who both have more personality than Anakin. That’s a meaty topic for a great geek argument, to be sure.

So when any movie with science fictional elements comes out, it’s pretty inevitable that — particularly given how very few really good science fiction movies are made — geeks are going to want to know just where on the science fiction / fantasy spectrum it falls. You’ve likely seen the trailers for Real Steel, which opens tomorrow in the U.S., and of course it’s clear that boxing robots are a huge part of the movie. But, you may have wondered, how realistic are they really? How fantastical is the movie’s setting, and how plausible? In other words: is it really science fiction, or does it veer towards that indistinct genre border?

I’m pleased to be able to tell you, without fear of giving too much of the movie away, that it’s pretty solid science fiction. It’s set in the year 2020, so not very far in the future, and, well, you know how in lots of movies set in the near-future there are flying cars everywhere, or fully holographic movies, or other things that would take many years to become mainstream and are nowhere near even early adoption in reality? The filmmakers of Real Steel avoid all of that. In fact, the movie’s 2020 looks a lot like the real 2011, with the exceptions of eight-foot tall sophisticated robots that can fight each other and mimic human movements in real time, and somewhat more sophisticated computers that, for reasons passing understanding, have translucent screens.

And the robots themselves? Yes, they’re a good bit more sophisticated than what could be built today, particularly considering how much they would weigh. It’s hard to say whether they’re that outlandish for eight to nine years in the future, though, considering how quickly technology can evolve sometimes. It’s certainly not a huge stretch to think that the sport of boxing would embrace robots, since they could be just as brutal to each other as desired, without anyone risking serious injury or death — I mean, a robot could literally have its head ripped off and still return to fight again within days. There is a question that is touched on in the film about whether Atom, the robot that becomes a focal point of the story, is at least somewhat self-aware — but the filmmakers very wisely leave it unanswered, letting the audience draw their own conclusions.

I should point out that Real Steel is in fact based on a short story, titled just “Steel,” by the excellent science fiction author Richard Matheson. The story was previously adapted (with a screenplay by Matheson) as an episode of The Twilight Zone 48 years ago, starring Lee Marvin. In the original story and episode, though, the robot’s owner ends up disguising himself as the robot in the climactic fight, which does not happen in the movie (and really couldn’t, the way things are set up). And the whole father-and-son story, so crucial to Real Steel, is completely absent from the original material as well.

In summary: To this geek’s mind, yes, it’s good science fiction. It doesn’t try to do too much, but settles for imagining a plausible near-future that’s grounded in today’s reality. It’s not a perfect movie, of course, but it aims for doing more by doing less and, on that front at least, succeeds.

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