I remember a talk in which Rolando Tolentino explained that science fiction performs a function similar to myth-making, only that the former relies on projecting humanity into the future, as opposed to that of the latter, which projects us into the past. This comes with an additional sense of agency regarding science fiction (compared to mythology, which is a flashback). The future, after all, is always turning into today, and if the last few decades were any indication, scientific advancements will only further advance on a geometric scale. Before we know it, we are in a world with intelligent machines around us, or one where we are constantly communicating with other forms of intelligent life out there. Where, then, are we to locate ourselves in this progressive shuffle?
One of the primary rationales behind the production of science fiction has always been to elevate the status of humanity in the face of new and potentially dehumanizing scientific possibilities. True enough, powers beyond our full comprehension, not to mention way beyond our capacity, are glimpsed at in most famous scientific discoveries (the atom bomb, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, and so on). Our imaginations go to work on the rest, cooking up all sorts of amoral, dystopian futures. It, then, becomes a human need to give our species an ego boost, a pat on the back that tells us, “don’t worry, we’re still better than Fallout/The Matrix/Planet of the Apes/War of the Worlds”.
Some works of science fiction attempt to achieve this elevation through divergence: the human race is fighting against the machines/robots/aliens, but will triumph in the end. Humanity will emerge victorious through some act of intelligence, emotion, willpower or creativity (think Independence Day’s David and Macross’ Lynn Minmay) which will reinforce his superiority over the superior-in-all-aspects-but-ultimately-non-human Other.
In contrast to this are the works which work through the convergence between man and science: works such as the Iron Giant and even Gurren Lagann which focus on a usually inexplicable bond between human and technology in order for said technology to transcend its capacities. This, again, is for the eventual empowerment of humanity: machine with human attachment will beat machine without.
Real Steel is the latest addition to this category of sci-fi. Set in a seemingly not-so-distant future where people get tired of seeing people beating other people up in a ring, the world turns instead to remote-controlled robots pounding the metal out of each other in true Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots fashion. (True enough, this seems to be the logical next step, as we have gone from using animals to ourselves to even our simulacra via video games, to sate our thirst for violence. But I digress.) One victim of this shift from flesh-on-flesh to metal-on-metal is Hugh Jackman’s character Charlie Kenton, an out-of-work boxer who tries redeeming himself by making a living using these fighting robots instead. The story revolves around his relationship with his estranged son, Max, and how the machine-centric sport becomes a medium, a common interest for them to rebuild their relationship upon. The man-machine bond is seen in the relationship between Max and Atom, a robot he digs out of a scrapheap after he avoids falling off a cliff when his shirt gets snagged on the robot’s arm. This establishes the “sentimental value” Max begins to feel for the robot, a second-generation (read: obsolete) model designed to be nothing more than a training dummy. Max’s “love” and Charlie’s boxing skills, through the “shadow function” (an operating system that allows a robot to mimic a controller’s movements as if motion-captured), allow Atom to transcend its normal functions, eventually reaching his peak when he is pitted against the WRB (World Robot Boxing League) champion Zeus, a robot whose design for efficient fighting is evident from its compact head to its piledriver-like arms. Atom takes a beating during the early rounds, losing his ability to move based on voice commands in the process, which prompts Charlie to activate the “shadow function” and, through Atom, fight as the champion boxer he had once been. At the end of the match, Atom loses, but is the one cheered on, as a “people’s champion” (The Rock and Pacquiao pun unintended) of sorts.
Seeing Atom’s almost human face brings to mind the Uncanny Valley, the border between affection and repulsion, between the “aww” and the “eww” that human beings feel when confronted with robots that are almost alive in the intricacy of their animation: oblong eyes that are slightly turned down to give the illusion of melancholia, and a set of wire stitches that could pass for a futuristic ragdoll mouth, all framed in a human-shaped head contained in a mesh not unlike those used for fencing masks. Charlie reinforces the intent behind such use of human-like features when he notes that the earliest models were really constructed similarly to humans. This is further utilized in several scenes when the camera lingers for quite a while on Atom’s face during the more emotional parts of the film, as if the robot were indeed trying to think of something sentimental to say. This semblance of humanity is put to the test when Atom is pitted against the features of the new-and-improved models: “Noisy Boy” is a robot whose head is shaped like that of a samurai helmet, “Twin Cities” actually has two independent heads, and the champion, “Zeus”, has almost no head to speak of, as well as having piledrivers built into its arms for more punching power. Thus, Atom, being the most human in appearance, becomes identified as the hero, punching his way through such grotesques in order to win the sympathies of his human audience. And, as stated above, it is indeed Atom, along with the persevering Max and Charlie, who wins the people’s hearts in the end.
In the end, we are led to believe that the title of the movie is a much deeper play of words than what appears at the surface: that real “steel” (note multiplicity of meanings) cannot come from something simply made of steel, that humans are the only ones who have the most real of steel.