In 2020, human boxers have been replaced by robot boxers. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman)
is a former boxer who owns such a robot, Ambush, competing in
unsanctioned matches and in exhibitions with it. At a rural fair, Ambush
is destroyed by Black Thunder, a bull belonging to promoter Ricky (Kevin Durand). Having made a bet that Ambush would win, Charlie now owes Ricky $20,000, which he doesn't pay before leaving.
Charlie is informed his ex-girlfriend has died, and that he must attend a hearing to decide the fate of his preteen son Max (Dakota Goyo). Max's wealthy aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn)
want full custody, which Charlie gives them in exchange for $100,000,
half in advance, on the condition that Charlie take care of Max for
three months while the couple are away on a second anniversary.
Charlie and Max meet with Charlie's childhood friend Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly),
who runs the boxing gym of her deceased father, Charlie's old coach.
There, Charlie buys a secondhand World Robot Boxing league (WRB) robot,
the once-famous Noisy Boy, and arranges for it to fight the illegal
circuit's champion, Midas, at a venue belonging to his friend Finn.
Partly due to both his inexperience with Noisy Boy's combinations and his own overconfidence, Charlie ends up losing control of Noisy Boy and Midas destroys it.
Charlie breaks into a junkyard with Max to steal scraps that he can
use to put a new robot together. There, Max falls over a ledge, where he
is saved from doom by getting snagged on the arm of a buried robot.
After Charlie pulls Max back up, Max digs out the entire robot, called
Atom. On Max's insistence, Charlie takes it back to Bailey's gym, where
they discover Atom is an obsolete Generation-2 sparring bot built in
2014. Atom has been designed to sustain massive damage, but is unable to
deal much damage itself. Atom also has a "shadow function" for
following human movement. Partly due to both Max's insistence and
Charlie needing money, the duo has Atom fight an unsanctioned outdoor
match against a robot called Metro. Atom wins, earning back some of
Max later upgrades Atom to take vocal commands, using parts from
Charlie's demolished robots, and convinces Charlie to train Atom. Atom's
string of subsequent wins attracts the attention of a promoter from the
WRB, who offers Atom a professional fight against the robot Twin
Cities. Charlie accepts, and Atom wins again, thanks to Charlie's boxing
experience allowing him to locate and take advantage of a small tell
in Twin Cities' punch. Reveling in their subsequent novelty attention,
Max challenges WRB champion Zeus, designed by genius Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and sponsored by wealthy Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda), who before the match tries to buy the upstart Atom.
As Max and Charlie leave after the Twin Cities fight, Ricky and his
men attack them, and steal their winnings. Feeling guilty, Charlie
returns Max to his aunt and uncle, feeling Max will be safer with them
and refusing the second half of the money he was promised. Bailey
convinces him that he can be a better father. Debra allows Charlie to
take Max out for one last night, to the Zeus-Atom match. Zeus severely
damages Atom while also getting injured for the first time. Ricky, who
had bet Finn $100,000 that Atom would not last the first round, tries to
slip away, but is cornered by Finn and his colleagues. In the fourth
round of the five-round match, Atom's vocal receptors are damaged, and
Atom must fight the last round in shadow-boxing mode, copying Charlie's
moves from the aisle. Zeus, now controlled manually by a furious
Mashido, expends energy on trashing the defensive Atom,
running low on power and turning sluggish as a result. The fight swings
in Atom's favor as he overwhelms the weakened Zeus, even knocking the
seemingly invincible champion down once, but Atom is unable to win
before the round ends. The judges declare Zeus the winner on points, but
the near-defeat leaves the Zeus team humiliated. Atom is labeled the
"People's Champion" as Charlie and Max celebrate their success.
Real Steel is directed by Shawn Levy and is based on Richard Matheson's 1956 short story "Steel." The film was produced by DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, 21 Laps, and Montford/Murphy Productions.
The original screenplay was written by Dan Gilroy and was purchased by
DreamWorks for $850,000 in 2003 or 2005 (sources differ). The project was one of 17 that DreamWorks took from Paramount Pictures when they split in 2008. Director Peter Berg expressed interest in the project in mid-2009 but went no further. Levy was attached to the project in September 2009, and Jackman was cast in the starring role in November for a $9 million fee. In the same month, Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider at DreamWorks greenlit the project. Les Bohem and Jeremy Leven had worked on Gilroy's screenplay, but in 2009 John Gatins was working on a new draft. When Levy joined the project, he worked with Gatins to revise the screenplay,
spending a total of six weeks fine-tuning the script. Advertising
company FIVE33 did a two-hundred page "bible" about robot boxing. Levy
said he was invited by Spielberg and Snider while finishing Date Night, and while the director initially considered Real Steel to have "a crazy premise," he accepted after reading the script and feeling it could be "a really humanistic sports drama."
With Real Steel having a production budget of $110 million, Levy chose to set the film in state fairs and other "old-fashioned" Americana settings that would exude nostalgia and create a warm tone for the film's father-son story. There was also an attempt for the scenery to blend in new and old technology. Filming began in June, 2010, and ended by October 15, 2010. Locations include areas around Detroit, Michigan, and across the state, including at the Renaissance Center, the Cobo Arena, the Detroit Fire Department headquarters, the Ingham County Courthouse, the former Belle Isle Zoo, and the Highland Park Ford Plant.
Jason Matthews of Legacy Effects, successor to Stan Winston Studios, was hired to turn production designer Tom Meyer's robot designs into practical animatronic
props. He said, "We have 26-and-a-half total live-action robots that
were made for this film. They all have hydraulic neck controls. Atom has
RC [radio-controlled] hands as well."
According to Jackman, executive producer Spielberg "actually said to
Shawn, 'You should really have real elements where you can.' ...
Basically if they're not walking or fighting, that's a real robot." Levy added that Spielberg gave the example of Jurassic Park,
where Winston's animatronic dinosaurs "got a better performance from
the actors, as they were seeing something real, and gave the visual
effects team an idea of what it would look like." As Real Steel
was not based on a toy, Meyer said that "there was no guideline" for the
robots, and each was designed from scratch, with an attempt to put
"different personality and aesthetics," according to Levy. In Atom's
case, it tried to have a more humanizing design to be an "everyman" who could attract the audience's sympathy and serve as a proxy to the viewer, with a fencing mask that Meyer explained served to show "his identity was a bit hidden, so you have to work harder to get to see him." Executive producer Robert Zemeckis
added that the mask "became a screen so we can project what we want on
Atom's face." Damage was added to the robots' decoration to show how
they were machines worn out by intense battles.
For scenes when computer-generated robots brawl, "simulcam" motion capture technology, developed for the film Avatar,
was used. As Levy described the process, "[Y]ou're not only capturing
the fighting of live human fighters, but you're able to take that and
see it converted to [CGI] robots on a screen instantaneously. Simulcam
puts the robots in the ring in real time, so you are operating your
shots to the fight, whereas even three, four years ago, you used to
operate to empty frames, just guessing at what stuff was going to look
like." Boxing hall-of-famer Sugar Ray Leonard was an adviser for these scenes and gave Jackman boxing lessons so his moves would be more natural.