In the movie Real Steel, a boy named Max salvages an obsolete sparring robot called Atom and, with the help of his father and the father's mechanic/girlfriend, restores it to working condition. Shortly thereafter, Max goes jogging with Atom, has it pick him up, and asks "Can you understand me?"

The robot, though it has no audio circuitry that we know of at this point of the movie, nods.

The issue is never mentioned again.

What on earth does Atom's nod signify? Is the robot sentient? Is it psychic?

Additional details

  1. The scene takes place at 45:43. Max asks the robot "Can you understand me?" It responds with an ambiguous noise and a slight nod. It does not appear as though Max has triggered this with any nod of his own. "Don't worry," Max continues, "your secret's safe with me."

  2. Later in movie, during the climactic fight with the robot Zeus, it seems as though Atom responds to Max's entreaties to get off the mat, though Max was not wearing headphones or a control mic at the time.

  3. Atom seemed to be looking at himself in the mirror when left alone before entering to fight with league robot "Twin City".

  4. Atom's head was bent, as though in sadness, when Charlie looked him through the rear view mirror of the car after he left Max.

  • don't forget the scene where Atom looks at myself in the mirror.
    – Reactgular
    Jan 22, 2013 at 22:31
  • Yup. The film-makers hint at the robot's sentience several times. Perhaps it was something like Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (in the book, not the movie), where the lavish attention paid by a new owner somehow embued him wih life. Jan 23, 2013 at 3:55
  • I am convinced by your examples. For the time being, I deleted my answer. Would update it if possible.
    – Mistu4u
    Jan 23, 2013 at 3:57

6 Answers 6


Found a similar question in Sci-fi, and borrowing DavRob60's answer from there shamelessly.

We don't know for sure, and it's intentional: here is a quote from an Interview: ‘Real Steel’ by Director Shawn Levy.

SR: The idea of Atom’s sentience is introduced in the film, but is never fully explored, was that a conscious decision?

I had three versions of the movie. One Atom is alive, confirmed, a soulful, sentient being. Two, we confirm that Atom is just a machine regardless of what this boy believes, and three, maybe. Maybe the boy is right, but maybe he isn’t and we will never know and obviously I went with version three. Because when I confirmed or denied Atom’s consciousness the movie lost a certain magic. I think it’s epitomized in the scene where Atom is alone in the locker room and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. Some people think they see him move, and some people don’t.

  • I suppose DavRob60 deserves some of the points, but you found it, so I'm giving them to you. Thanks. Jan 23, 2013 at 14:40
  • @MichaelStern, Yes that is true! Guess I am lucky! :)
    – Mistu4u
    Jan 23, 2013 at 15:30

Well according to my theory when max was dancing/practicing with atom in the garden, atom did not respond to max when max was not in front of him. But in the fight with Zeus, Charlie was Shadow boxing...but he was not in front of Atom and hence this indicates that atom could have a brain of himself. i.e He was For Real.


Not to say there aren't some very interesting ideas here... But I think in the end Charlie is very obviously about to say I love you, as indicated by other plot hints like max calling him Charlie throughout the movie and finally calling out dad several times as he pushes through the crowd to reach Hugh Jackson. Also when max begs him to fight the last round he reluctantly agrees saying "are you kidding me with those eyes?" Just an opinion, only from watching the movie. Also the thought of Caroline inhabiting the robot is a really fantastical idea... It is a very interesting thought though something that never crossed my mind. Also in interviews with the director it is clearly stated that the fact that atom may be able to think for himself is an idea purposely portrayed; also it is purposefully put forward as an ambiguous idea in order to "maintain the magic."

  • Also I forgot to address this but I do think, and this is absolutely my opinion from just seeing the movie, but I really think that there is no chance that what Charlie was going to say was that he wasn't max's father. Again just my opinion but that would totally nix the entire point of the heartwarming theme of the movie. I'm also not sure whether that comment was made in jest.
    – Caitlin
    Oct 19, 2014 at 23:24
  • And also I have happened to see the movie about ten times, and I've noticed all the sequences regarding the ambiguity of atom's free thought I.e. The scene with the nod, the mirror etc.
    – Caitlin
    Oct 19, 2014 at 23:26
  • 1
    Welcome to Movies & TV. Keep in mind that you can always extend your existing answers by using the little "edit" link under them, no need to write comments. And also, those points about what Charlie was about to say to Max seem rather irrelevant to the actual question.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Oct 19, 2014 at 23:43

I know this is a bit late but I just watched the film and it seems to me like Hugh Jackman is going to say 'I love you'. Nevertheless, I much prefer the idea of him about to say that it wasn't him fighting and Atom was doing it all himself. It'd be a coincidence though that they both threw all the same punches anyway.


I noticed that, at the end of the fight with Zeus and Atom when Hugh Jackman was telling Max "I need you to know", it seemed like he was about to say "I didn't...", but was cut off with Max's remark "your secret's safe with me." My thought was he was about to say "I didn't fight the last round".

Just something I caught and thought could mean something.

  • He was about to say that he wasn't really the kids father.
    – user6692
    Nov 11, 2013 at 4:25

Here is my theory: Atom is Max's mom!

You'll get the hind from another movie (Insidious), where they talk about an astral body, it's the same idea. Caroline (Max's mom) had an accident. The broke car was brought in the same dumpyard where Atom was found, and so was her spirit. She saved Max when she saw him fall.

So in this scene Atom's soul (Caroline's soul) could understand him. But Max didn't know that and sent Atom to fight in WRB & UW, not knowing that his mom is being beaten. He also said "mom was the coolest" in one scene, so maybe he figured out the fact about Atom by the dance and such things. When he got the fact about his mom he actually allowed Zeus to win, as he didn't want Atom to be beaten up further. Why didn't he use his famous uppercut and end it? It wasn't Max's or Charlie's, but Atom's! He decided to let Zeus win.

  • 1
    Is there actually an answer in there? Feb 24, 2014 at 20:04
  • @Paulster2 - the answerer infers the robot is possessed by the spirit of the child's dead mother.
    – JoshDM
    Feb 24, 2014 at 20:17
  • 1
    @JoshDM WUT????
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 24, 2014 at 20:43
  • @NapoleonWilson - I didn't write the answer, dude. I just interpret.
    – JoshDM
    Feb 24, 2014 at 21:07

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