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real steel essay

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"Real Steel" imagines a near future when human boxers have been replaced by robots. Well, why not? Matches between small fighting robot machines are popular enough to be on television, but in "Real Steel," these robots are towering, computer-controlled machines with nimble footwork and instinctive balance. (In the real world, 'bots can be rendered helpless on their backs, like turtles.) It also must be said that in color and design, the robots of "Real Steel" are glamorous and futuristic-retro enough to pose for the cover of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

The movie's story, however, is not from the future but from the past, cobbling together Rocky's rags-to-riches trajectory and countless movies in which estranged fathers and sons find themselves forced together and end up forging a deep bond. Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who is now hanging onto the fringes of the fight game as the owner-operator of a ramshackle robot he tours with. It's no match for the competition, and when the desperate Charlie replaces it with another battered veteran, it can't even outfight a real bull.

Even during these early fight scenes, however, it's clear than the movements of the robots are superbly choreographed. My complaint about the battling Transformers of the movies series is that they resemble incomprehensible piles of auto parts thrown at each other. Fast cutting is used to disguise the lack of spatial continuity. "Real Steel," however, slows down the fight action enough so that we can actually perceive it, and the boxing makes sense.

OK, OK, it doesn't completely make sense, because when one of these behemoths slugs the other with a right cross to the jaw, we're wondering (1) shouldn't one of those punches cause as much damage as a car wreck, and (2) why do robots have jaws? For that matter, why are they humanoid at all? "Real Steel" doesn't pause for logical explanations. In this world, robots do the work that human boxers used to do. (Sugar Ray Leonard was a consultant on the fight scenes.) The director is Shawn Levy , who didn't endear himself to me with the "Night at the Museum" movies, but gets on base with this one.

If the movie were all robot fights it might be as unbearable as — well, a Transformers title. Drama enters in the person of Charlie's son, Max Kenton ( Dakota Goyo ), a smart, resilient pre-teen who, like all kids, seems to have been genetically programmed to understand computers, video games and all allied fields. Charlie is a very bad absent father, and as played by Hugh Jackman, he is actually mean toward his boy. Charlie's sister ( Hope Davis ) and her husband ( James Rebhorn ) plan to adopt the boy, but in a complicated arrangement, Charlie first has to take care of Max for a summer.

This Max is some kid. He loves robots. During a scouting expedition in a 'bot junk yard, he comes upon an ancient training robot named Atom literally covered in mud and convinces his dad this relic still has fighting potential. Amazingly, it hasn't entirely rusted away, and father and son rehab it and teach it some new tricks. One of its abilities is a "mirror mode," which allows it to mimic the motions of its controller. Since Charlie is a has-been boxer, Max has faith that Atom can win as his dad's avatar.

All of course leads up to a big match with a fearsome juggernaut named Zeus. To my amazement, this fight scene is as entertaining and involving as most human fights, and the off-screen story (involving Zeus' odious owners) adds interest. It's hard to hate a robot, but not its owners.

Curiously, however, it's easy to love Atom. With his blue eyes glowing behind a face of steel mesh and his skinny, muscular body facing off against giants, he's a likable underdog. Steven Spielberg was one of the producers of this film, and knowing of the research he put into making E. T. lovable, I wonder if screen-testing was used to help design Atom. You wouldn't say he looked cute, but there is something about him that's much more appealing that his shiny high-tech rivals.

"Real Steel" is a real movie. It has characters, it matters who they are, it makes sense of its action, it has a compelling plot. This is the sort of movie, I suspect, young viewers went to the " Transformers " movies looking for. Readers have told me they loved and identified with their Transformers toys as children. Atom must come close to representing their fantasies. Sometimes you go into a movie with low expectations and are pleasantly surprised.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Film Credits

Real Steel movie poster

Real Steel (2011)

Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language

127 minutes

Dakota Goyo as Max

Hope Davis as Deborah

Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton

Evangeline Lilly as Bailey

Anthony Mackie as Finn

Kevin Durand as Ricky

James Rebhorn as Marvin

  • John Gatins

Directed by

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Real Steel

Review by Brian Eggert October 4, 2011

Real Steel

According to Real Steel , Dreamworks’ new sci-fi family film, over the next 8 years, the sport of boxing will fade away only to be replaced by high-tech robot death matches where remote-controlled automatons punch each other into scrap metal. If you’re thinking this sounds like “Rock’em Sock’em Robots: The Movie,” then you’d be right—although the film has no direct correlation to the toy, aside from obvious similarities in concept. We learn that a video game- and violence-obsessed culture demands more carnage, and only robots that tear each other limb from limb can provide it. Given that Comedy Central’s show BattleBots was canceled years ago due to waning interest, and that the current state of robotics is nowhere near the advances suggested here, the unlikely notion that, by 2020, such developments will come to fruition sours any prospective credibility.

Based “in part” on the 1956 short story Steel by Richard Matheson (author of stories that inspired I Am Legend  and The Box ), the script by John Gatins does little to improve its source (curiously, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven receive story credit). Originally adapted into a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone starring Lee Marvin, Matheson’s story and the more concise show version had enough sense to explain that boxing was outlawed, making robot fights a necessary replacement. Instead, director Shawn Levy’s film, produced by names like Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, uses this setup to retread worn-down sports movie conventions in an entertaining, if nauseatingly familiar way. Herein are common underdog elements from Rocky and Over the Top , with the clanging metal bouts of 1990’s Robot Jox re-ornamented by the machines from Transformers for effect(s).

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, a fast-talking hustler and former boxer who fights robots at county fairs and underground venues. After an opening scene involving an eyebrow-raising tussle between Charlie’s bot and a bull, Charlie discovers an estranged former lover has died and she has left their now 11-year-old son in his custody. Plucky, smart-mouthed kid Max (Dakota Goyo) is quickly signed over to the lover’s sister (Hope Davis), except for the coming summer months, during which Charlie has to begrudgingly babysit. Charlie wants nothing to do with the boy, his mind set on earning his fortune as a promoter and rekindling a flame with robo-gym owner Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) in a perfunctory love subplot. But Max proves to know much more about robots than his dad would expect. Scrounging for parts in a dump, Max unearths an abandoned sparring bot called Atom (pronounced “Adam” throughout), a machine not meant for title bouts but rather to coach the bigger guys.

Of course, being a kid, Max uses his fine-tuned knowledge of video games and robotics to engineer Atom with voice-recognition software and augments its already useful shadow-boxer feature. Using Charlie’s skill as a fighter to train the mindless bot, they take their find on the road and earn a name for themselves as unlikely winners. Charlie shows Max how to control his new toy with a fancy keypad, and before you know it, they’re in the big leagues against the current champion, Zeus, who’s backed by two ultra-rich, glaring-eyed villains: designer Tak (Karl Yune) and his bankroll Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda). It all ends with a “David and Goliath” fight that gets the blood flowing, even if the fighters have motor oil running through their veins. Throughout, Charlie calls the boy “Kid,” and Max calls his dad “Charlie,” until the end when, as expected, they’re hugging and teary-eyed and finally call each other by their father-son titles.

Humans would seem to drive the story as they place their aspirations in the victory of their robots, but the action takes place in the ring as slick bot designs smash each other into bits during emotionless battles. Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence is the grown-up brother to this comparatively dim “family” effort (PG-13 violence and language may be too much for younger viewers), exploring several of the same themes with greater detail and artistry. For example, Real Steel ’s bouts recall the “Flesh Fairs” from A.I. , where hordes of screaming human fans drool as robots are ripped apart. Spielberg imbued his “mecha” with human qualities, however, bringing into question humanity’s jealousy toward the perfection of a robot lifeform. But Levy’s robots have no personalities for themselves, despite his (woefully ineffective) attempts to imply a human dimension with ponderous shots of Atom’s glowing, unresponsive eyes. Atom never moves unless told to do so by voice command or shadow-boxing mimicry, yet the characters say they know there’s something more, something self-aware under Atom’s metal exterior. We never see what that might be. One keeps hoping the story will bring another dimension to the robots, but no evidence is offered to contradict their presence as empty fighting machines.

A combination of top-notch CGI and animatronic designs by Jason Matthews bring the robots to physical life—there’s not a moment in which we’re not entirely convinced these bots are tangible, even if their complete lack of personality makes any hope for connecting to them impossible. Fortunately, the actors have more personality. Goyo (who appears in Thor as the young hero) steals the show, lending Max a spitfire persona that somehow offsets Charlie’s awfulness. Indeed, Charlie’s complete disregard for his responsibilities as a parent makes him a despicable character, even though he finally surrenders to his fatherly instincts and reforms. Jackman’s energetic performance and general amicability as a performer wash over the character’s abrasive qualities—he belittles Max and abandons him in a dangerous situation more than once—but just barely. Had another actor been cast, the role wouldn’t have worked, and audiences would find themselves struggling to care.

But why worry about things like character and story logic when flashy robot battles showcase your film? Much about Real Steel relies on surfaces, from the production’s admirable polish to mindless robot punch-outs designed to entice gamer crowds. And thanks to several arena settings, a wealth of product placement informs audiences that ESPN and Bing are still alive and well in 2020. Superficiality drives the production, which like Atom, is recycled from leftover parts into a glossy new entity; though, unlike Atom, this film does not do the unexpected, even for this admitted sucker for boxing movies. A resoundingly optimistic, syrupy finale adheres to the subgenre’s formula to the letter and promises an already-in-development sequel to progress (if box-office receipts turn a profit). Mainstream audiences will no doubt gather around its blatant commercialism, but few will see this as anything but a tired old cast re-pressed and coated with a shiny new layer of wax.


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Like the high-fructose-laced soda given front-and-center product placement, this underdog sports story is sweet and corny, but in just the right measure to satisfy the masses.

By Peter Debruge

Peter Debruge

Chief Film Critic

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real steel

Though set in a future where boxing has gotten so intense only high-tech robots have what it takes to compete, “ Real Steel ” still trusts a good, old-fashioned father-son drama to deliver the thrills. Like the high-fructose-laced soda given front-and-center product placement, this underdog sports story is sweet and corny — but in just the right measure to satisfy the masses, especially 10-year-old boys and NASCAR dads who never lost touch with their inner-child. An intense 11th-hour marketing push should buy the opening, giving Hugh Jackman a big non-“X-Men” hit, while putting junior co-star Dakota Goyo on the grid.

Goyo plays 11-year-old Max, a Dr. Pepper -chugging, videogame-obsessed urchin who shows up at the breaking point in the career of his estranged father, onetime heavyweight contender Charlie Kenton (Jackman). While Jackman is clearly the bigger star, “Real Steel” so deeply identifies with Max’s point of view, there can be no question the pic was engineered to appeal to younger auds.

Although online reactions have mistaken “Real Steel” as a live-action version of the Rock’em Sock’em Robots game, pic’s actual inspiration was Richard Matheson ‘s hardscrabble short story “Steel,” previously adapted as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The addition of the kid character is just one of many departures in an approach that borrows the robot-boxing concept but little else from its pulp source material.

Consistent with director Shawn Levy’s “Night at the Museum” series, “Real Steel” exploits the tension between a deadbeat dad and his estranged son, serving up some serious wish fulfillment on the way to reconciliation between the generations. John Gatins’ screenplay (with story credit going to Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven) is almost merciless in its presentation of the flawed father figure: Jackman plays an alarmingly selfish con man who owes his creditors nearly $100,000 and who sells custody of his son for the same sum.

After Charlie sees his last robot reduced to scrap metal during a rodeo run-in with a bull, the empty-handed opportunist shows up in court to sign away Max to his aunt (Hope Davis) and her filthy-rich husband (James Rebhorn). Since the kid’s guardians-to-be have a fancy trip planned, Charlie reluctantly agrees to take care of Max for a month or so — just enough time for a change of heart to occur.

Like a 21st-century Bogart (with considerably better physique and teeth), Jackman has mastered the art of affable surliness. Goyo holds his own against the star, though Levy uses the adorable young man more for cheek-pinching appeal than to create a well-rounded character. While widescreen lensing allows for more visual audacity than his previous features, TV-trained Levy loves closeups — a tactic that plays better on homevideo than Imax screens — and Goyo’s the kind of dewy-eyed child actor on whom he can rely for emotional cutaways.

As it happens, “Real Steel’s” most endearing character isn’t human at all, but an obsolete second-generation robot named Atom. With neon-blue eyes glowing behind what looks like a mesh fencing mask, Atom appears to be more alive than the gleaming, cutting-edge counterparts he faces in the ring. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me,” Max tells him, though pic leaves it alluringly open-ended what that “secret” might be — just as it allows for the possibility that Charlie may not be Max’s actual father.

Far less ambiguous is the analogy between Atom’s origins (after Dad destroys two expensive fighting bots, Max digs the battered droid out of the mud in a dangerous landfill raid) and the scrappy status of his two trainers. Charlie has all but discarded his young charge, and he’s not far from being tossed out of the small-time circuit himself. Still, something about this soulful robot — who takes a beating but refuses to stay down — inspires them to challenge the champ of the World Robot Boxing League, an autonomous, constantly evolving pile driver named Zeus.

Such attention to character makes it easy to understand why the story would connect with young auds. The uncanny thing about “Real Steel” is just how gripping the fight scenes are; Sugar Ray Leonard served as a consultant to the motion-capture performers responsible for pantomiming the machines’ moves. Atom is unique in that he features a “shadow mode,” further anthropomorphizing the character as the bot learns to mimic the moves of its trainer.

As future-set stories go, the pic doesn’t alter much about the present. Instead, Levy celebrates the truck-driving, can-do spirit of the heartland, adapting exec producer Steven Spielberg’s all-American attitude to a more blue-collar crowd. Seamless visual effects and heavy-duty sound design complete the illusion of fast-moving fighting machines, while Danny Elfman’s inspirational score leaves no heartstring unstrummed.

  • Production: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment presentation of a 21 Laps/Montford Murphy production. Produced by Don Murphy, Susan Montford, Shawn Levy. Executive producers, Jack Rapke, Robert Zemekis, Steve Starkey, Steven Spielberg, Josh McLaglen, Mary McLaglen. Co-producers, Rick Benattar, Eric Hedayat. Directed by Shawn Levy. Screenplay, John Gatins; story, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Leven, based in part on the short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Mauro Fiore; editor, Dean Zimmerman; music, Danny Elfman; music supervisor, Jennifer Hawks; production designer, Tom Meyer; supervising art director, Seth Reed; art directors, Jason Baldwin Stewart, Jeff Wisniewski; set decorator, Victor J. Zolfo; costume designer, Marlene Stewart; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/Datasat), Steve Cantamessa; sound designers, Warren Hendriks, Craig Henighan; supervising sound editor, Henighan; re-recording mixer, Paul Massey; stunt coordinator, Garrett Warren; animatronic supervisor, John Rosengrant; live-action animatronic and robotic effects, Legacy FX; special effects supervisor, Joey DiGaetano; visual effects supervisor, Erik Nash; visual effects, Digital Domain, Cantina Creative Digital Neural Axis, Ockham's Razor; associate producer, Ron Ames; assistant director, Josh McLaglen; casting, David Rubin, Richard Hicks. Reviewed at Directors Guild of America, Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2011. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 126 MIN.
  • With: Charlie Kenton - Hugh Jackman Max Kenton - Dakota Goyo Bailey Tallet - Evangeline Lilly Finn - Anthony Mackie Ricky - Kevin Durand Deborah Barnes - Hope Davis Marvin Barnes - James Rebhorn Tak Mashido - Karl Yune Russian Robot Owner - Olga Fonda

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Movie Review: ‘Real Steel’

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“Real Steel” is “Rocky” with robots that look like “Transformers,” managed by a “Raging Bull” washout in need of a “Cinderella Man” comeback that’s complicated by “The Champ” and “Paper Moon” sorts of parent-child issues, with a sweet bit of “Wall-E”-styled scrap metal who never pulls his punches. Perhaps “Reel Steal” would be the better title.

As it happens, this recycled reclamation of underdogs saga is neither as bad as it sounds nor quite as good as it could be, although the 9-year-old bruiser next to me pummeled the armrest, spilled his soda and screamed “awesome” through every one of the fight scenes. I took that for an endorsement, one I think the family film crowd not bothered by a little rough language will second.

The film stars Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo and Atom as, respectively, the-down-on-his-luck-former-boxer-turned-fighting-robot manager, the almost-given-up-on-romance-but-I-can-fix-any-broken-bot-you-drag-in-here beauty, the I-wish-I-had-a-better-dad-but-at-least-he’s-in-the-robot-game kid and the won’t-someone-just-believe-in-me blue-eyed boxing bot.

Out of that lineup the name to remember is Goyo’s. He’s a cheeky Canadian youngster with soulful eyes that move from mischief to sadness with a remarkable ease. Earlier this year, he nailed the fierce action opening of “Thor” as boy Thor. In the role of 11-year-old, newly motherless Max, he is the saving grace of “Real Steel,” helping not only to bring out the humanity in Atom — Max just knows the bot has the circuitry of a champion — but sparking a flicker of life in Jackman, who’s had a tough time getting his acting to outshine his muscle-flexing prowess and his model good looks (see the “X-Men” franchise for the first, celebrity fashion spreads for the rest).

Director Shawn Levy, of course, deserves some of the credit for what works (and blame for what doesn’t). As a filmmaker, Levy has specialized in comedy, typically bringing a certain polish and proficiency, but not the panache (“Date Night,” “Night at the Museum”). With “Real Steel,” he moves into the action game. Maybe metal should be his métier, because Levy, with Sugar Ray Leonard adding some punch to the boxing sequences, makes you actually care about the robots, or at least Atom.

Despite all the threads that seem plucked from other films, “Real Steel” was inspired by a 1963 “Twilight Zone” episode based a sci-fi short story by Richard Matheson. Writer John Gatins, who has a string of hard-knocks redemption stories to his credit, adapted it for the big screen and does a decent job of keeping the dialogue lean and mean, which helps because the plot’s so predictable.

The time frame has been slightly fast-forwarded to 2020 and from the looks of it the economy has only gotten worse, with veteran cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“Avatar”) capturing a down-market Americana that feels depressingly real. Meanwhile, mass entertainment has gone to extremes, replacing hard bodies with steel robots so that boxing can be even more brutal. Like video games, humans hold the controls, they just don’t have to feel the pain.

Charlie (Jackman) is a consistent loser on the circuit, carting around his bots — and pieces — in an 18-wheeler, making bad bets and usually running out rather than paying up. The one slip-up that surprises him is Max, the son he fathered and had forgotten.

The kid’s aunt (Hope Davis) wants custody; her rich beau (James Rebhorn) wants a kid-free trip to Europe, and Charlie wants to make a fast buck. So a backroom deal puts money in Charlie’s hands and Max in his care for the summer. The kid’s no pushover, he wants a piece of Charlie’s take, and after he discovers Atom in a garbage dump, this young bot boxing fanatic wants a shot at getting his guy into the game. And thus the journey toward enlightenment begins.

It’s a grungy world of double-dealing with villains of various stripes, the requisite fighting foes to root against with the two-headed Twin Cities, the weirdest; the high-tech monstrous Zeus, the best. The fights do go on and on, but they’re more exciting to watch than what Michael Bay’s managed with “Transformers.”

As Charlie, Jackman is mostly surface gloss — he knows how to work a greasy tee and a bad attitude, glaring and growling at everyone. He softens slightly with Lilly’s Bailey (so nice to see her bruised, buff beauty back since “Lost” wrapped). But it is with Goyo that Jackman warms up. Their father-son spats, truly some of the film’s best sparring, is what gives it heart. Not “Rocky” heart, or “Raging Bull” heart, mind you, but “Real” enough.

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real steel essay

Former Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey is an award-winning entertainment journalist and bestselling author. She left the newsroom in 2015. In addition to her critical essays and reviews of about 200 films a year for The Times, Sharkey’s weekly movie reviews appeared in newspapers nationally and internationally. Her books include collaborations with Oscar-winning actresses Faye Dunaway on “Looking for Gatsby” and Marlee Matlin on “I’ll Scream Later.” Sharkey holds a degree in journalism and a master’s in communications theory from Texas Christian University.

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Real Steel Review

Real Steel

14 Oct 2011

126 minutes

Kids love robots. Adults love boxing. Why not stick them together? It’s a maxim that has worked well for the inventors of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots since 1964, and it’s an idea that director Shawn Levy is clearly hoping will carry into the cinema. Despite success with big‑budget comedies, Levy hasn’t exactly earned a lot of critical respect for his previous output (given that includes the first Pink Panther remake and both Night At The Museum films, it’s not really a huge surprise), so here he’s at least trying to stretch himself, adding family drama to the toolbox and looking to prove that he can offer more than just a lot of farcical gurning.

Fortunately, he has an ace up his sleeve in the shape of Hugh Jackman, who gives a charisma-driven performance as the stubborn Charlie Kenton, a man still holding on to past glories as a lifeline, and scraping a living up and down the quieter highways and byways of America as he searches for quick-cash opportunities that would let him pay off his creditors. Though the script doesn’t exactly give him a lot of depth to work with, it’s at its best when brought to life by Jackman and young Dakota Goyo, who evokes the Kenton spirit in some of Max’s reactions and provides an effective, if occasionally annoyingly precocious, foil for Jackman. Plus there’s Atom, the beaten-up sparring robot they discover in a junkyard that turns out to be more than meets the eye. Though there is occasionally a little too much nodding towards the likes of E. T. (including a blatant product placement on a similar level as Elliot’s use of Reese’s Pieces) as Max in particular works with the seemingly broken-down device, there’s also scope for some heartfelt moments as boy and ’bot bond during training sessions. It’s easy to forget occasionally that Atom is an effect in the quieter moments when it’s simply the two interacting.

Then there’s the looming shadow of Transformers. Sharing an executive producer in Steven Spielberg with the techno toy franchise, Real Steel was always going to be judged against the Bayhem of Optimus and co., even though Levy has insisted that the focus for his film was on the father/son angle. Fortunately, the boxing action doesn’t disappoint, with some satisfying moments as the metal warriors smash, tear and pummel each other. From no-rules scrap fights in the underground league to the shiny, high-tech, high stakes world of the World Robot Boxing championship, the actual bouts are impressively choreographed. And utilising some bleeding-edge performance-capture technology for the hulking fighters pay real dividends. While Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ simulated simians beat them to the punch by using the Avatar-style system in the real world, Levy and his team have pulled off solid action, even if it is confined to the boxing ring. If there’s a fault here, it’s the inane chatter of the sports commentators in later scenes, crammed full of nonsense about certain droids being “hard-wired with the will to go on…”

The biggest issue for the director is being the servant of two masters. Splitting his time between the new family unit working itself out and the underdog sports story means that neither quite gets the treatment it deserves. Other plots fare even less well, sinking into easy clichés. That’s particularly glaring whenever Jackman shares the screen with Evangeline Lilly, for while their chemistry is decent, the result is less sparks, more fizzle. And the less said about either Kevin Durand’s good ol’ boy rival or the slinky, wealthy Russian ’bot owner (Olga Fonda) who crops up near the end, the better. In fact, outside of Jackman and Goyo, the attempts to generate some real emotion all fall flat. Danny Elfman’s score lays on the soaring strings and choral work almost to parody levels and Levy lets his past get the better of him when he beats it into you that You Should Be Feeling Awed/Upset/Triumphant Right Now. A little less emphasis on easy tugging of the heartstrings would have worked wonders for the impact of the whole.

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Details: 2011, USA, Cert 12A, 126 mins

Direction: Shawn Levy

Genre: Action

Summary: A boxing drama set in the near-future where 2,000-pound humanoid robots do battle

With: Anthony Mackie ,  Dakota Goyo ,  Evangeline Lilly ,  Hope Davis ,  Hugh Jackman ,  James Rebhorn and Kevin Durand

Our reviews

Philip french.

Fights between giant robots are the only selling point in Shawn Levy's imagination-free action flick, writes Philip French

Peter Bradshaw

User reviews, related articles, real steel: watch the trailer - video.

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Real steel must prove its mettle at the us box office, hugh jackman: 'what are ya – a poof', will hugh jackman's real steel show us some mettle, today's best video, the week in tv, 'get your arse out, mate', spanish football player's stunning solo goal, whitewater kayaking: 'i wanted to spend every day on the river'.

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real steel essay

Den of Geek

Real Steel review

Hugh Jackman and big fighting robots. What could go wrong with Real Steel? Here's our review...

real steel essay

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Steven Spielberg seems omnipresent in the multiplex, even without having directed a film since 2008’s Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull . Once again, more often than you’ll see him credited as a director, you’ll see him credited as an executive producer. The role of an executive producer varies, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate Spielberg’s creative contribution to any of the films he’s been credited on this year.

It can be applied to Super 8 , a production on which Spielberg was apparently very hands-on. Or Cowboys And Aliens , whose director, Jon Favreau, was given a list of western recommendations by Spielberg before shooting began. Or it can be applied as liberally as deciding to fire someone for comparing Michael Bay to Hitler, which I assume was the entirety of his input to the execrable Transformers: Dark Of The Moon .

The reason why all of this should be mentioned when talking about Real Steel is because the trailers make it look like Transformers , when in fact, it’s actually far closer in tone to Super 8 . Indeed, in certain aspects of its nostalgia for Spielberg’s own catalogue of family movies, this one actually supersedes JJ Abrams’ film. For one thing, as much as I liked it, I don’t believe that Super 8 had a single original bone in its body.

Elsewhere, Real Steel builds a whole world, from a high concept resembling nothing so much more than a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots- The Movie. It’s 2020, and boxing as we know it has long since been made obsolete. Robots advanced to the point where they could dish out, and endure, more punishment than human combatants, and so that’s where all the promotion and sponsorship money goes.

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Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer, now reduced to being a lowlife who takes his scrapheap robot Ambush on the road, and someone who indulges in animal cruelty for a quick buck. One fight doesn’t end well for the robot, and Charlie winds up with yet more debt, on top of the fortune he already owes to various loan sharks nationwide.

His day gets worse when he discovers an ex-girlfriend of his, the mother of his estranged son, has passed away. Charlie receives custody of their kid, Max, and wants nothing more than to wash his hands of the responsibility. Being the arsehole that he is, he finds a way to make money off of this too, reluctantly agreeing to look after Max over the summer into the bargain.

As much as it’s a sci-fi inflected sports movie, this is the essence of Real Steel , and it’s given enough thought and importance in the script that it’s not just another film about robots hitting each other. The pair discover a pile-of-junk sparring bot named Atom while scrounging around, and while Atom eventually hits a lot of other robots, it’s much more about what that means to Charlie and Max.

It’s not diminished expectations in action when I recommend Real Steel . I’m not merely saying that it’s not as bad as it looks, or that it’s only better than the Transformers movies. I’m not saying it’s free of product placement or obligations to studio shareholders. I’m saying it’s a fun and perfectly enjoyable family film, and certainly the best film Shawn Levy has ever directed.

Levy is a director from whom you might justifiably expect very little, having previously churned out Cheaper By The Dozen , Night At The Museum and The Pink Panther . But in the terms of a sports movie, the formula through which Real Steel thrives, that makes Levy an underdog. We don’t expect much from him, but he delivers, with the help of a smart and imaginative script by a seasoned sports movie scribe, John Gatins.

The somewhat obvious redemptive streak for Charlie is made much better for the fact that he doesn’t make him obviously redeemable from the outset. As mentioned, he partakes in animal cruelty, for the entertainment of rednecks, and it’s quite a while into the film before you can believe he cares for Max’s safety beyond his own self-preservation instinct.

It’s an unusual role for Hugh Jackman, reputedly The World’s Nicest Movie Star, but better known for playing Wolverine in the X-Men movies. My prediction would be that after The Wolverine , his next turn of snikt-ing and chewing cigars, he’ll hang up the claws, and if I’m right, this is the kind of role he should be playing to break out of that role.

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Charlie isn’t exactly a lovable rogue, but Jackman sells both the early lack of moral fibre, and the discovery of his role as a dad. Spielberg’s influence is also seen in the film’s low-key romance, which sets up Charlie and Evangeline Lilly’s character, Bailey, in much the same way as Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood.

It might be sacrilege to say so, but I don’t say it lightly. Their character histories are very similar. Charlie was trained by her father, before he broke his heart, and Bailey’s, leaving her to run her father’s old business. Lilly is no Karen Allen, but she is a solid female character and not merely eye candy. Most importantly, however, Jackman has solid chemistry with his on-screen son, Dakota Goyo, who isn’t nearly as annoying as he appears in the trailers, and only about half as precocious.

Perhaps I’m talking about the characters a lot more than you might expect while reviewing a high-concept film about robots hitting each other, but then Real Steel subverted my expectations too. Still, the marriage of CG and animatronic in the robot fight scenes is convincing to the point that those scenes capture your imagination. And naturally, Atom and the mechanical combatants are all suitably ‘toyetic’.

The portrayal of the underground robot boxing scene is unexpected, but welcome, and still entirely within the proper bounds of a 12A certificate family film. You know, the ones which are flagrantly abused by one Mr Bay. Real Steel doesn’t punctuate its action scenes with lewd or sexually charged scenes, or transparently try to sell a film for children to the lucrative male teenage audience. Its endearing crossover appeal comes more naturally as a result.

Real Steel is a father-son story first, a sports movie second, and a sci-fi movie third, but its qualities are drawn from each. There are missteps, certainly. Even with the added emotional investment of what it means to Charlie and Max, those scenes of robots hitting each other are never quite as interesting as the human characters. But they’re still enough to justify that comparison to Super 8 .

If Super 8 was a Spielberg throwback that could be enjoyed more by adults than kids, with more of a predilection for nostalgia than originality, then Real Steel is its equally enjoyable counterpoint. It’s a film that captures the ethic of those Amblin movies, adding buckets of imagination, too.

Happily for the studios, that’s what will make Real Steel pay off for kids and Toys R Us alike.

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Mark Harrison

Mark Harrison | @MHarrison90

Mark is a writer from Middlesbrough, who once drunkenly tried (and failed) to pitch a film about his hometown to a director from Pixar. Fortunately, he…

The Cinemaholic

Real Steel Ending, Explained

Diksha Sundriyal of Real Steel Ending, Explained

‘Real Steel’ is a sports movie that replaces human opponents with robots. Set in a near-future where human boxers have been replaced by robots, it focuses on the story of a man who reconnects with his estranged son through their shared love for the sport. The film is an entertaining drama that has all that any underdog story would need. Despite its pretty straight-forward story, there are a couple of things that leave us pondering about it. If you haven’t seen the film yet, bookmark this article for later. SPOILERS AHEAD

Plot Summary

Charlie Kenton is an ex-boxer who is trying to make some money through the business of robot fighting. However, no matter how strong a robot he has, he always loses, mostly because of his ill-timed decisions. He is drowning in debt and running away from the ones whom he owes money when the news of his ex-girlfriend’s death is delivered to him. It turns out that his eleven-year-old son, whom he had abandoned a long time ago, has no one but him now. Debra, Max’s aunt, tries to get his custody, but Charlie needs to sign off on it. He sees this as an opportunity and gets Debra’s rich husband, Marvin, to pay for giving away Max to them. The only catch here is that Charlie needs to keep Max for a month because Debra and Marvin have a trip planned to Italy that they cannot cancel. Charlie agrees to this and as Max accompanies him on his quest to make money through robot fighting, they discover an outdated robot named Atom abandoned in a junkyard.

real steel essay

As Atom wins fights, he starts to turn into a local legend and soon enough, finds his way to the League matches. His first fight is against Twin Cities, and Charlie believes that they might not make it out of this one. A surprise arrives for the Kenton duo when they are invited to the Zeus suite, where Ferra Lemkova offers to buy Atom for a substantial sum of money. Charlie jumps at the offer, believing it would solve all of his monetary problems, but Max says that Atom is not for sale. With little to no hope of winning, they start to turn heads when Atom makes it out of the first round and then beats Twin Cities. In the spur of the moment, Max challenges Zeus to a fight. Things heat up for Charlie when Ricky catches up with him. He beats him and takes away all the money he had won. This leads Charlie to reflect on his lifestyle and how it affects Max. He decides to drop him back at Marvin and Debra’s. Later, however, he starts to miss him and when Zeus accepts the challenges, he goes back to Max, apologizes to him for all that he had done, and asks for a chance to make amends.

The fight with Zeus looks like a suicidal quest for Atom, but the robot proves his mettle once again and survives one round after another. He is beaten to a pulp several times but perseveres, and in the process, wins over the audience. By the final round, some of his functions are damaged and he doesn’t respond to Charlie’s voice commands. Max advises him to fight using shadow mode. In the final round, Charlie and Atom fight as one and they succeed in smashing Zeus, though not completely defeating him. In all of the rounds, neither Zeus nor Atom had been properly defeated, with both getting saved by the bell and surviving for the next round. This technicality leaves the decision of winning the challenge on the overall judge’s scores. In what turns out to be a close call, Zeus wins the challenge, but it becomes clear that Atom has emerged as the true hero of the fight.

Is Atom Sentient?

real steel essay

One of the things that ‘Real Steel’ hints at but never quite explores is the nature of Atom. Over the course of events, the robot becomes an important part of the Kenton family, with every single person getting attached to him as they would to any other human. This gives a human air to him and as thousands of people cheer for him in the fight against Zeus, we feel the force of his punches on his opponent and wince at every strike he endures. This emotional attachment gives the necessary weight to the story, but it also toys with the idea of how much Atom can actually feel.

The emotional factor with him is introduced when he saves the life of Max. At this point, he has not been plugged in and is just another junk in the yard. However, soon enough, Max turns him into a fighter due to his sheer will. He feels connected to the robot, which is largely because by that time his father is not responsive to the love he wants to feel and is still grieving the death of his mother. What’s interesting is that we find Atom reciprocating it, his actions explained as the result of the rare shadow function he’s been fitted with. He mimics the kid, which gives off the impression that he is doing just what his function calls for. But then, other smaller things faintly hint at something more.

The first instance of such behavior is when Max takes him out for a walk at night. He looks at Atom and says “your secret is safe with me”. This line is repeated at the end of the film where Charlie tries to tell him something, most probably that he loves him. Max cutting him off with “your secret is safe with me” might simply mean that he understands him and that he knows that his father loves him. We could apply the same theory where he says it to Atom. At this point, the kid doesn’t have any proper parent-figure in his life. His father has sold him to his aunt, whom he doesn’t feel very attached to. At this point, Atom is the only one who he can count on, the only one who he thinks loves him. But there is another explanation as well.

In some scenes of the movie, we find Atom behaving too humanly for a robot. His setting works differently and he seems to be more receptive to the things that are taught to him. At one point, we find him staring at himself in the mirror, and it almost looks like he is contemplating something. His overall look, which is more rugged and torn down rather than the shiny appearance of his counterparts, also gives him a human character that allows the audience to easily get attached to him, along with the way he seems to be responsive of Max’s cries to get up and fight. Another thing that piques our curiosity is how Farra Lemkova suddenly shows an interest in Atom. He is just another sparring robot that has only recently started winning some fights. The only thing that makes him fascinating is his rare shadow function. But is it really that rare or inimitable that the great Tak Mashido can’t get it for Zeus? Do they just buy every robot that seems to have potential, or are they aware of the things that the rare function brings with itself? Could it be that the shadow function that allows the robot to commit the boxing lessons to memory also lets him shadow other things, like emotions? Could this mean that Atom is one of the sentient ones? The film doesn’t give a yes to it, but with these little things spread across the movie, it also doesn’t give a specific no to us.

Read More: Will There be a Real Steel Sequel?


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2011, Action/Drama, 2h 7m

What to know

Critics Consensus

Silly premise notwithstanding, this is a well-made Hollywood movie: Thrilling and exciting action with just enough characterization. Read critic reviews

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Real steel   photos.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) used to be a prizefighter but lost his chance to win a title when heavy, towering robots took over the boxing ring. Now working as a small-time promoter, Charlie pieces together scrap metal into low-end fighters, barely earning enough to make it from one underground venue to the next. After hitting rock bottom, Charlie reluctantly teams with his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo), to build and train a championship robot for a last shot at redemption.

Rating: PG-13 (Intense Action|Brief Language|Some Violence)

Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-fi

Original Language: English

Director: Shawn Levy

Producer: Don Murphy , Susan Montford , Shawn Levy

Writer: John Gatins

Release Date (Theaters): Oct 7, 2011  wide

Release Date (Streaming): Jan 1, 2014

Box Office (Gross USA): $85.5M

Runtime: 2h 7m

Distributor: Walt Disney

Production Co: 21 Laps Entertainment, Montford Murphy

Sound Mix: SDDS, Dolby Digital

Cast & Crew

Hugh Jackman

Charlie Kenton

Evangeline Lilly

Bailey Tallet

Dakota Goyo

Anthony Mackie

Kevin Durand

James Rebhorn

Marvin Barnes

Tak Mashido

Russian Robot Owner

John Gatins


Susan Montford

Executive Producer

Robert Zemeckis

Steve Starkey

Steven Spielberg

Mary McLaglen

Josh McLaglen

Mauro Fiore


Production Design

Marlene Stewart

Costume Design

Dean Zimmerman

Film Editing

Danny Elfman

Original Music

News & Interviews for Real Steel

Ranking 26 Giant Robots From Film and TV

Hugh Jackman’s 10 Best Movies

Box Office Guru Wrapup: Real Steel Holds Off Footloose

Critic Reviews for Real Steel

Audience reviews for real steel.

I wonder if this was originally written to be a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots movie, but when they couldn't get the rights they just decided to make it anyway. In either case, it's not very good. Amazing that you could take a movie about anthropomorphic robots and manage to still make it into a cliche sports film.

real steel essay

A Hugh Jackman star vehicle, basically a Disney-fied Rocky done with robots. You'll see everything coming from a mile away, or at least you won't miss anything when you go to the fridge for Jello squares. The most interesting bit is how it's only implied that the robots might have an actual self awareness w/o ever actually going there.

It's a Rocky-with-Robots underdog story that's vivid. Real Steel's emphatic concept, stunning visuals make up for the somewhat-cheesy-inspirational aspect. The film is enough to go the distance and have audiences invested. 4/5

I was pleasantly surprised with this one. I thought it would be a decent, cute, family film but it was one that actually had a decent plot and a spine. Thinking it would be quite predictable, there were levels to the story that kept me wanting to know the story of the main characters and was really rooting for their success. Reminiscent of a modern take on "Rocky", this one was a lot better than I had predicted.

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The 10 Things We Learn About the Future in ‘Real Steel’

Get ready to have your sons/nephews/classmates/local neighborhood kids going gonzo for Real Steel , the latest lame cinematic statement from that motion picture antichrist, Shawn Levy. As the man responsible for the reprehensible Night at the Museum films, as well as the equally awful Pink Panther remake, his mangled Midas touch remains intact. Though horribly uneven and spotty in both an action and/or adventure sense, this otherwise cracked crowdpleaser will have those prone to snips and snails and puppy dog tails running to their local Wal-Mart to lap up the latest battling robot action figures. And when the video game comes out – especially for the motion control possibilities of the Wii and Kinect – a whole new generation of console coach potatoes will be born.

But perhaps the most appalling thing about this supposed slice of future shock is its lack of forward thinking. This is a world where several products that we know today – Dr. Pepper, ESPN, Nokia – still exist, where the advances we wanted for 2001 are still nowhere to be seen 26 years later (the movie is set in 2027, it seems). The planet is not more multicultural, white people appear to still be the majority, and robots have reached the point where they can mimic human fisticuffs – but yet they aren’t used as a labor or time saving force. Indeed, it’s as if the script, supposedly partially based on Richard Matheson’s short story, forgot that it was set sometime in the not too distant future and simply fudged a few tech geek tweaks.

So along with learning what it feels like to waste $10.50 at the local Cineplex, here are the top 10 things we learn about 2027 in Real Steel . Most of them are obvious. A few are fascinating. All become part of this movie’s lunatic lameness, beginning with the backdrop:

Whenever our former pro pugilist, Charlie Kenton, goes cruising across America on his various get rich via robot boxing schemes, he has the roads all to himself. Long stretches of highway and byway pass without a single vehicle along the horizon. Even when he enters a big city like Atlanta, he has the streets to himself. About the only place we find people? The massive sports arenas where the bouts take place…or the abandoned zoo where such underground matches also occur.

Whenever a character pulls out his or her trusty communication device to call up a roadmap, web search, and in dire situations, a phone call, their device looks like a sheet of glass with random metal pieces adorning its front. Imagine a tablet made out of doll house window and festooned with proto-Apple accessorizing, and you get the idea. Can’t imagine that they withstand the impact of a drop from several feet…or a stiff breeze.

When Charlie finally allows his abandoned son to fight his scarp heap robot in a major contest, he makes it very clear that the boy needs to work on a outer ring routine to get paying customers jazzed up about his junk pile. Watching him shuffle around one day, he suggests a bit of dancing. So naturally, when the lad gets a chance to strut his pre-pubescent stuff, he looks like a double for a certain 2011 tween icon. It’s hard to say what’s more nauseating – the kid copping moves from the Biebe…or the robot mimicking every move precisely.

For years now, Ultimate Fighting has argued that it is more popular than regular boxing…and it has a point. After all, no one knows who the latest heavyweight champion is, but everyone knows Kimbo Slice, right? Apparently, by turning the former king of sports into a vague video game using oversized controllers and 10 foot tall toys, the homoerotic element of mixed martial arts is nullified, resulting in a new fascination which has little to do with sweaty, muscled men rendering each other horizontal until one gives up in submission.

6 – 1

Like regular boxing, a robot can win on points, via a technical knock-out, or a true KO. The only way they appear capable of the latter is to cause their opponent to suffer a kind of major computer or power source malfunction. They can beat each other senseless, and yet survive, just to have their potential victory vanquished via a software bug or hard drive crash. And then there is the various baffling bells and whistles they can employ. In the end, cricket makes more sense.

It’s good to know that, several decades from now, there will still be deadbeat dads. It’s also refreshing to see well to do adoptive parents bartering for a boy child like rug merchants in Marrakesh. Charlie needs money, and Max’s aunt apparently needs a kid to hug – that is, until he turns unctuous and rebellious. The price for the privilege? $100,000 – an in future money, that must be like 75 smackers. And no one seems phased by this concept. No one.

Charlie’s son Max has a lot of flaws – he’s uber-precocious, doesn’t respond to half-assed parenting all that well, and when given the chance, will grab the microphone in the middle of a major robot boxing match and challenge the reigning champion and its rich Eurotrash owner with juvenile taunts. But his biggest personal defect? The boy DOES NOT LIKE CHEESEBURGERS! Again, a grade school aged male says, point blank, that he doesn’t like CHEESEBURGERS! Is there no god in the future as well???

Again, Charlie travels a lot in this movie. Apparently, he can’t get fights near the gym where his harried gal pal lives, and doesn’t believe in short jaunts to neighboring areas. Instead, he must make his way across vast swaths of America in what appears to be a converted food truck…and there’s no question that gas and other petroleum byproducts are still important. While we do see a set of solar panels, we eventually learn they are used to keep Max’s robot Atom charged up and ready. Good news for all of you who enjoy global warming and turmoil in the Middle East.

When we first meet our fallen idol, he’s not sitting in some gym bandaging his wounds or working on his comeback. No, he’s using his latest black market acquisition to entertain a local country expo – and this time, his ‘bot will be battling against a…bull? Yep, in keeping with the son of the soil simplicity of all things carnival, Charlie books his fighter against an actual animal – not a robotic steer or a hologram of same. An actual cow. Apparently, all those ASPCA commercials they show late at night on VH1 and Current have no affect on what happens in the future.

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Hugh Jackman in Real Steel (2011)

In the near future, robot boxing is a top sport. A struggling ex-boxer feels he's found a champion in a discarded robot. In the near future, robot boxing is a top sport. A struggling ex-boxer feels he's found a champion in a discarded robot. In the near future, robot boxing is a top sport. A struggling ex-boxer feels he's found a champion in a discarded robot.

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  • Evangeline Lilly
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  • 56 Metascore
  • 2 wins & 6 nominations total

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Dakota Goyo

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Olga Fonda

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John Gatins

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Torey Adkins

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David Alan Basche

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Pacific Rim

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  • Trivia Each of the robots were built both in real life and CGI. For certain shots with animatronics, they were controlled by more than twenty puppeteers.
  • Goofs Given that Hugh Jackman is left-handed, Atom is seen at times mirroring Charlie rather than mimicking him. In many scenes, especially in the fight between Atom and Zeus, Atom is clearly fighting right-handed while Charlie is shadow boxing left-handed. This is perhaps the reason why Atom is seen to be alternating between mimicking and mirroring even though according to how shadow boxing is explained in the film he should be only mimicking. This is also easily seen, though, when you notice the person running the shadow function either facing Atom or not. The shadow apparently mirrors when the operator is facing him and in mimic when not.

Max Kenton : The People's Champion? Sounds pretty good to me.

  • Connections Featured in Trailer Failure: Conan, Real Steel, and Final Destination 5 (2011)
  • Soundtracks All My Days Written and Performed by Alexi Murdoch Courtesy of Zero Summer Records By arrangement with Nettwerk Music Group

User reviews 560

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  • Feb 14, 2012
  • Why did Farra (Zeus' owner) want to buy Atom, an old generation sparring robot?
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  • October 7, 2011 (United States)
  • United States
  • DreamWorks (Canada)
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  • $110,000,000 (estimated)
  • $85,468,508
  • $27,319,677
  • Oct 9, 2011
  • $299,268,508

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Six workers presumed dead after crippled cargo ship knocks down Baltimore bridge

  • Six workers presumed dead
  • Search and rescue operations suspended


A drone view of the Dali cargo vessel, which crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge causing it to collapse, in Baltimore


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The site of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in the Patapsco River in Baltimore

Japan issued an evacuation advisory for the coastal areas of the southern prefecture of Okinawa after a powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami warning.

An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 hit Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, on Wednesday morning, the Taiwan central weather administration said.

Site of a strike on WCK vehicle in central Gaza Strip

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Guest Essay

It Hurts to See Biden Imitating Trump on Trade

A photograph of a bright blue “United States Steel” sign leaning against a decrepit wall. The sign is sliced through in several places.

By Roger Lowenstein

Mr. Lowenstein is the author of “Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War.”

Waving the flag as he heads into election season, President Biden is opposing the acquisition of U.S. Steel, a once-great steel maker headquartered in Pittsburgh, by a bigger and stronger Japanese company, Nippon Steel. “I told our steel workers I have their backs, and I meant it,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “U.S. Steel has been an iconic American steel company for more than a century, and it is vital for it to remain an American steel company that is domestically owned and operated.”

No doubt, Mr. Biden hopes to counter the nativist appeal of Donald Trump, especially in a state with a long history of anti-free trade sentiment. (Abraham Lincoln carried Pennsylvania 164 years ago on the strength of the Republican Party’s pro-tariff stance.)

But blocking the purchase would be destructive to American interests overseas and at home. First off, U.S. Steel is far from the icon Mr. Biden says it is. Within the industry, it ranks third in the United States and 27th in the world. Once America’s third-largest company , today it ranks 186th on the Fortune list.

Moreover, Nippon Steel’s nonhostile $14.1 billion deal is clearly in America’s interest as well as in the workers’ interest. The Japanese company, which already produces steel in the United States as well as in Latin America and across Asia, won the sale in the boardroom by offering roughly twice as much as a domestic competitor, Cleveland-Cliffs. Nippon has promised to inject needed capital and technology to make the century-old former icon more competitive. It also promises that U.S. Steel will keep making its steel in the United States and keep its headquarters in Pittsburgh.

But Cleveland-Cliffs has been lobbying the Biden administration hard, and so has the United Steelworkers union, to block the deal. Yesterday, the union rewarded Mr. Biden by endorsing him for re-election.

Legislators in both parties have jumped on the populist bandwagon. Senator Bob Casey, running for re-election in Pennsylvania, said he would “work like hell against any deal that leaves our steelworkers behind.” Never mind that under red-white-and-blue American ownership, U.S. Steel’s work force plummeted from 340,000 during World War II to about 22,000 today.

What hurts is to see Mr. Biden imitating Mr. Trump, who has vowed, if elected to a second term, to block the Nippon acquisition “ instantaneously .” Mr. Biden’s statement of opposition was slightly weaker; he denounced the deal without explicitly vowing to kill it. Still, rather than confront the defeated former president in an instance where Mr. Trump was wrong on the merits, Mr. Biden pandered to Mr. Trump’s followers.

This mirrors Mr. Biden’s general approach on trade, fairly characterized as Trump-lite. He suspended some of Mr. Trump’s tariffs but left others solidly in place. He stuffed his signature Inflation Reduction Act with numerous “Buy American” requirements offensive to U.S. allies. The best that can be said for Mr. Biden on this front is that his protectionism is inconsistent, whereas Mr. Trump’s is a coherent part of his poisonous America First ideology.

Mr. Trump’s worldview is of America as fortress. Mr. Biden’s is not. Mr. Biden recognizes that what happens beyond America’s borders, as in Ukraine and Gaza, is vitally important to the United States. His economic nationalism in this instance is out of place with the respect he purports to show for American allies.

The great lesson of the 1930s and ’40s was that trade was important beyond its economic aspect — it was vital to international security. The international economic crisis and World War II were successive acts in an interrelated nightmare, first trade barriers and currency wars, then worsening depression, aggressive nationalism and shooting war.

It did no good to bankrupt rival nations, as the allies, led by France, attempted with Germany after World War I. Germany did not respond well. It did no good to enact protective tariffs because other nations would surely retaliate — but the U.S. Congress did so anyway, enacting the Smoot-Hawley tariff (over the protests of more than 1,000 economists) in 1930, worsening the Great Depression.

After World War II, the victors — led by the United States — reckoned from bitter experience that the catastrophe of the war had its seeds in the economic nationalism that preceded it.

The allied effort to build a new international order included not just political safekeeping organizations such as the United Nations and military alliances such as NATO but also economic collaboration such as the World Bank, the I.M.F. and Bretton Woods.

The postwar aim was not to make our friends, or even our rivals, suffer. It was to see them prosper. Preventing international depression was just as important as preventing war. In contemporary (Trumpian) terms, making Mexico “pay” would have been stupidly self-defeating. The worse Mexico does, the more migrants cross our border.

Economists today are just as persuaded as in 1930 that trade, in general, makes all countries richer, albeit those affected in specific industries merit assistance and retraining. In recent decades trade has achieved a miracle, helping to lift millions in the developing world out of poverty. To retreat from internationalism is to retreat into a blinkered world of shrinking economic pies, in which each principality protects what it has rather than contributes to growth. Closed markets foster narrow thinking and nativist, prejudiced societies. We have seen the political benefits from trade in our own lifetimes. American military strength helped to win the Cold War, but so did the example of American capitalism, which other people wanted in on. More than missiles, they wanted McDonald’s.

The White House has suggested that U.S. Steel’s acquisition by Nippon, the world’s fourth-largest steel maker, will be subject to a national security review by a group with White House and cabinet-level participation known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The notion that foreign ownership of an American steel plant poses a national security risk is ludicrous — steel is not in short supply, and Japan is friend, not foe.

A negative decision would chill future investment in the United States and wound America’s partner in the Pacific, a vital relationship as tensions with China rise. Among the Japanese, it would revive memories of bygone racism. (According to The Wall Street Journal, Lourenco Goncalves, the chief executive of Cleveland-Cliffs, was heard on a private call with investors appearing to mock the accents of Nippon executives.) Not a way to treat an ally.

Mr. Trump is immune to such arguments. Mr. Biden should know better.

Roger Lowenstein is a journalist and the author of “Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War.”

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Why the Baltimore bridge stood little chance against a fully loaded cargo ship

As questions surround the collapse of a Baltimore bridge after a containership crashed into it Tuesday, engineering experts say that while bridges have some built-in defenses against collisions, this one was most likely too extreme to withstand.

“Bridges are and should be designed to withstand ship impacts. That’s typical of the design process,” said Sanjay R. Arwade, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

“But for all structures and all engineered systems, there is a possibility that an event will occur that is beyond what the structure was designed for. And this may be one of those situations,” he added. 

The Francis Scott Key Bridge, a roughly 1.5-mile-long steel arch truss bridge, collapsed into the Patapsco River early Tuesday after a containership struck it. Several vehicles crashed into the water, and one of the country’s busiest ports shut down.

Follow live updates on the Baltimore bridge collapse

An unknown number of workers with Brawner Builders Inc.   were repairing concrete ducts when the ship, called the Dali, hit a support pillar. Six employees are presumed dead .

Key Bridge was ‘fairly unprotected'

Arwade said design codes for modern bridges stipulate "what sort of loads it has to be able to resist.”

“Whenever a design code is written, decisions have to be made about what the most extreme conditions are,” he said. 

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said the bridge was "fully up to code."

But the Key Bridge was built in 1977, and bridge design and technology have improved since then.

"Since the 1970s, we have a lot of advancements," Sameh Badie, a professor of engineering at George Washington University,  told NBC Washington. But he said, "I saw today a couple of videos before the collapse, and it seems to me, structurally wise, it was very safe."

Roberto Leon, a structural engineer at Virginia Tech, said that while engineers try to account for “extreme events” during the design and construction process, “when this bridge was built, there were no ships of this size.”

“This type of load was not really considered,” he said. “So the bridge was, I would say, fairly unprotected.”

Retrofitting older bridges could cost millions

Officials have not specified what type of protective infrastructure, if any, the Key Bridge had. 

Leon said that on a newer bridge, large concrete structures called dolphins are often used to protect the base. Dolphins can form a kind of frame and are designed to take the impact of a vessel and “slow the ship down and redirect it away from the bridge,” he said.

“In some cases, they’re called sacrificial elements, because they might be damaged beyond repair if an event of this type occurs, but of course, they save the bridge,” he added.

John Pistorino, a structural engineer in Florida, said dolphins are in use to protect the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Florida, which was reopened in 1987 , seven years after it was hit by a freighter. Thirty-five people died after the bridge collapsed into Tampa Bay.

Pistorino, who was involved in the construction of the rebuilt Sunshine Skyway Bridge, described dolphins as walls or guardrails.

“They can be concrete or steel … and they go all the way down to the bottom of the river,” he said. “They’re supposed to protect the abutments.” 

Jacksonville, Florida, Mayor Donna Deegan cited the dolphin infrastructure that's in place to protect the Dames Point Bridge — the only bridge in the city that cargo ships sail under — in a statement Tuesday. She noted that the bridge is also equipped with specialty sensors that provide real-time information about the distance between the water surface and the bottom of the bridge structure over the main channel.

Older and more vulnerable bridges can be retrofitted to add defensive infrastructure like dolphins, Leon said, but building them can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I’m hoping that because of the infrastructure bill that passed, we are going to be able to do projects like this,” he said, referring to the $555 billion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed in 2021. “Putting those into the budget and justifying them is very difficult when you have all kinds of other bridges that are in really sad shape. So it’s just a question of prioritization.”

However, Kevin Heaslip, director of the Center for Transportation Research and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said the cost of designing bridges to withstand fully loaded cargo ships like the Dali would “be so high that we wouldn’t be able to have any bridges.”

Image: Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapses After Being Struck By Cargo Ship

Government oversight of bridges could increase

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he has been monitoring the situation in Baltimore. A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board has been sent to the crash site. 

Leon said he hopes what happened in Baltimore will cause port operations to change “quite a bit.” Pistorino said the event may lead legislators to take a closer look at vulnerable bridges in the country and the types of maritime traffic in ports.

“Just like the building collapse in South Florida created a lot of legislation that required a more intimate type of building scrutiny, I think that will happen on the bridges,” he said.

Minyvonne Burke is a senior breaking news reporter for NBC News.

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PsiQuantum, Related eye big industrial sites for redevelopment

Wants to build quantum computing facility, Related Midwest a possible partner

Chicago Industrial Sites Eyed For Quantum Computing Facility

Two industrial sites in Chicagoland could be transformed into a hub for cutting-edge technology.

PsiQuantum, a pioneer in quantum computing, is eyeing the former U.S. Steel South Works on the city’s South Side site and the former Texaco refinery in Lockport for a quantum computing facility, potentially generating over 1,000 jobs, Crain’s reported . 

California-based PsiQuantum is part of a select group leading the development of quantum computers, a technology poised to revolutionize various fields. The company seeks a location capable of sustaining cryogenic facilities crucial for operating quantum computers. Initial estimates indicate the creation of 250 to 1,000 jobs, with prospects for expansion in the future.

The potential arrival of PsiQuantum aligns with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s ambition to position Illinois as a hub for quantum development, adding to recent economic successes in electric vehicle and battery manufacturing. The project could breathe new life into dormant industrial sites, offering a significant economic boost to the region.

While the governor’s office and PsiQuantum remain tight-lipped on the matter, Related Midwest has emerged as a prospective developer, reportedly considering the acquisition of the 440-acre South Works site in connection with the quantum project. Talks between PsiQuantum representatives and city officials further fuel speculation about the venture, the outlet reported.

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Illinois’ quantum investment, backed by $200 million funding and initiatives like the Chicago Quantum Exchange, has already attracted substantial federal research grants. The state now competes with Colorado for additional federal funding, aiming to establish itself as the nation’s quantum industry epicenter.

Quantum computing, leveraging the principles of quantum mechanics, promises breakthroughs in various domains due to its unprecedented speed and security capabilities. PsiQuantum, with substantial venture capital backing, aims to deploy commercially viable quantum computers within five years, necessitating extensive facilities and resources.

The prospective project involves colossal investments, spanning two facilities covering 500,000 square feet and demanding significant power and water resources. 

—Quinn Donoghue 

South Works, the 415-acre “magnificent property,” is Chicago’s biggest development opportunity

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