New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 13: Teaching a Robot to Box

Recently, a Twitter mutual of mine convinced me to give the movie Real Steel a chance. The movie came out in 2010 to a mixed reaction, then disappeared; I remember it being summed up by someone as “Rock Em Sock Em Robots: The Movie,” which isn’t entirely inaccurate. Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer who trains and controls the robots who made the human version of the sport obsolete, gets thrown together with his son Max (Dakota Goyo), who’s obsessed with robot boxing and who wants to train a robot of his own. The movie’s a mix of things I like (robots! Hugh Jackman!) and things I feel deeply ambivalent about (movies with precocious kids in them, boxing). My friend sold me on the movie by comparing it to Pacific Rim—he said that Real Steel was an earlier, lower-budget movie that does a lot of the same things that Pacific Rim does, so much so that he prefers the earlier, lesser-loved movie to its more enthusiastically-received counterpart.

Having seen both, I still prefer Pacific Rim. Both movies are what I’d call beach-read movies: the kind of story that, if it were in book form, you’d expect to pick up in an airport, intrigued by a solid plot hook and likely eventually disappointed by its mediocre prose. Pacific Rim and Real Steel might be robot movies, but they’re each colored by a different genre. Pacific Rim repurposes mecha anime and kaiju disaster movies; Real Steel draws heavily on sports movies and Spielbergian father-son angst. Between those two options, I’ll take the kaiju any day, but I can see why someone else would be drawn to the sports movie over the disaster movie.

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The sports sections are the piece of Real Steel that kept me invested, even after I wrote off the family drama sections completely. (This is a script that signals its intentions: a movie that starts with a disinterested, absent father wallowing in debt and unable to make ends meet, thrown together for a summer with the preteen son whose life he’s never been involved in before, is likely going to curve toward toward the feel-good ending you’d expect, and this one didn’t surprise me.) I kept watching, despite my ambivalence toward the characters, because this movie is just so beautiful.

Cinematographer Mauro Fiore composes shots that leave the characters just off-center but still balanced, as though they’re not quite where they want to be in life, but they know how they want to get there. The movie spends a significant amount of time on the road in the Midwest, and it would be tempting to use a lot of golden-hour shots of cornfields as shorthand, but Fiore never does that; instead, he lights most of the travel scenes in the buttery yellow light of midday, or in a lovely dusky blue after sunset, with vehicles’ lights glistening off wet blacktop.

The action sequences, too, are gorgeous. Fiore uses a steady camera to showcase the fight sequences, which are made more impressive by the fact that the boxers aren’t human. They’re robots, seamlessly incorporated into the movie’s world through a mix of animatronics and motion-capture techniques. Even today, twelve years after its release, the robots look good. They’re solid and believable, made by the kind of special effects that don’t draw attention to themselves; I couldn’t find the seams if I tried, and I wasn’t interested in trying because I was so focused on the fluidity of the action. Sugar Ray Leonard was an advisor, and even taught Hugh Jackman to box. The scenes where the movie dropped all pretense at familial conflict and simply focused on the action really sang for me. There’s joy in movement, and in being physically present in a body. Real Steel’s action sequences expressed that joy beautifully; I just wish the rest of the movie had been so focused on the same idea.

I’d love to know, either in the comments or by replying directly to this email: what’s a movie you love that everyone else passed by? What do you love about it?


What I wrote:

I wrote about Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire Western Near Dark for Bright Wall/Dark Room this week. Near Dark is one of my all time favorite vampire movies; it’s perfect for late summer, when everything feels sticky and humid. It can be a little hard to find—it usually appears on a single streaming service like Shudder or Mubi for a month at a time, then disappears again—but your local library might have a copy on disc, and it’s well worth checking out.

I also wrote about Jordan Peele’s NOPE for paying subscribers.

What I talked about:

Kevin and I reviewed Bullet Train for this week’s episode of Seeing and Believing. Bullet Train is not good. It made me so angry I had trouble formulating sentences at one point, which is not ideal for recording a podcast (but was probably pretty entertaining for my cohost).

What I’m reading:

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV show comes out next month. I’m preparing by breaking out my old paperback of The Silmarillion. I can’t say I’m excited about the new show—I’m frankly exhausted by the constant churn of IP and the need to retell the same story over and over again—but this feels like a good way to revisit a story that was very important to me once.

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