Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Steel

You want an example of how strongly The Twilight Zone holds up? This episode, "Steel," was adapted in 2011 as a feature-length film starring Hugh Jackman and scored nearly $300 million at the box office worldwide and has a rating of 7.1 on IMDB. I have not seen Real Steel, so I can't comment on its quality, but I do know it involves massive, bulky robots duking it out in the boxing ring guided by human controllers, and the movie has a subplot involving the Hugh Jackman character reconnecting with his son.

"Steel," written by the great Richard Matheson, is expectedly more low key and more contained than the recent blockbuster. Lee Marvin plays Steel Kelly, a boxing manager in the future year of 1974 in which human prizefighting has been outlawed and androids are programmed instead to fight. Steel, a once great boxer himself, manages Battling Maxo B2, a broken down, outdated robot that Steel insists on fighting over the objections of his mechanic Pole (Joe Mantell). Having used the last of their money to travel for a bout in Maynard, Kansas, they prepare Maxo only for their fighter to completely break down at the last minute. Needing the payoff, Steel decides to step in the ring in its place.

Again, I haven't seen Real Steel, but I'm pretty sure Jackman doesn't climb in the ring and box the other Transformer-sized robot when his machine malfunctions; so for anyone keeping score, Lee Marvin is a tougher SOB than Hugh Jackman (as if there was ever any question about it).

To be fair, there's no way Jackman could have been able to pass for a robot in his story. The android boxers here are human-sized and built to resemble the real thing. At one point, Steel mentions how they are designed to bleed and sweat like humans. The effect is achieved using actors and makeup that make them resemble eyeless mannequins or Ken dolls. It's not elaborate, but the performers sell the jerky, automated movement just right, not overplaying it. Director Don Weiss gives us insert shots of Maxo's control unit on his back as Steel and Pole work on him, so we do get glimpses of the machine beneath the human exterior. The episode opens with the human pair wheeling around the covered robot on a broken set of wheels that Steel has to keep stooping down to fix, so it effectively primes us for the inhuman figure beneath the sheet; before we see its full form, we already think of it as a machine breaking down.

In terms of social message, human boxing has been outlawed because of the danger it poses, and yet, people have a blood lust that must be satiated. During the bout, the crowd hoots and hollers, cheering on their favorite android to "kill" Steel, oblivious that that's exactly what might happen. After the match, they pelt the loser with garbage and refer to him as a "pile of junk." It's pretty sad; humans have invented this wonderful, amazing technology, and all we see them do with it is have robots destroy and fight each other until they're broken down and useless.

We like think of our athletes as superman and superwomen, finely tuned machines who can perform amazing feats of strength, speed, and endurance, but all machines break down after a while, and when that happens, it's off to the scrap heap. Look at how many formers athletes of today who were prime physical specimens rolling in millions of dollars but are now consigned to bankruptcy, obscurity, and health problems. "Steel" shows us when athletes literally are objects with no feelings, and it's still not pretty. Human behavior is still barbaric.

It would have been easy for Matheson and Weiss to have gone the Rocky route and showed Steel going the distance or somehow overcoming the odds, but they adhere to the logical outcome of a physical fight between man and machine. That should be a cold, downer of an ending, and yet, "Steel" demonstrates the importance of hope and determination. No matter what happens or what obstacles are thrown his way, Steel himself holds out hope he and his robot can get back on top, Even after being pulverized in the ring and underpaid by the promoter, Steel immediately begins planning for how he's going to use the money to fix Maxo and upgrade him. Human Steel cannot be broken.

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