In Shawn Levy’s Real Steel, hulking robots fight each other in back-alleys and sports arenas as frothing crowds cheer them on. This blending of science fiction and fantasy, coupled with the adrenaline rush from the sheer spectacle of brawling metal behemoths, automatically makes the robots more interesting than the human characters. I honestly don’t know if this flaw can be attributed to the underlying concept, which I think is in the spirit of fun, or to the filmmakers, who clearly were influenced more by audience pandering than by story. There’s no denying the technical merits of this movie, but more to the point, there’s no doubt that it’s a cash cow that will inspire an advanced and highly marketable line of toys and action figures. Perfect timing, too – the holidays are just around the corner.
Loosely adapted from Richard Matheson’s short story “Steel,” the film takes place in the not-too-distant future, at which point specially designed robots have replaced humans as boxing champions. People have grown weary of ordinary mortal matches, in which the risk of injury far exceeded the risk of death; they now want to see fighters tearing each other apart limb from limb, apparently because the tolerance for violence and destruction has grown disturbingly high. Hence the robots, which by definition have no legal rights and are unburdened by morality. Destroy as many as you want – another one can always be built. The message is obvious, but fascinating just the same: While an individual is free to like whatever he or she likes, the masses hold sway over what is and isn’t entertaining. I’m suddenly reminded of the Transformers trilogy, which, despite its status as brain-killing garbage, has earned billions at the box-office. Maybe we shouldn’t always give the people what they want.
Alas, this brief flash of compelling social commentary is quickly overshadowed by a routine, predictable, sometimes unpleasant plot populated by characters we aren’t made to feel anything for. At the heart of the story lies Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), in his heyday a promising boxing contender but now a lowly, cash-strapped promoter of second-hand robot fighters. When he isn’t making reckless bets, making black market robot purchases, or participating in underground matches, he tries to woo his old flame, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of a boxing coach who once had Charlie under his wing. She finds that she can’t make her monthly payments on her father’s old gym. This would be Charlie’s fault; he hasn’t been paying Bailey his rent.
He suddenly gains custody of his hardened, technically-inclined eleven-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother – Charlie’s long forgotten ex-girlfriend – has died. Despite having had no relationship with the boy, and despite not wanting him around now, Charlie agrees to take Max for the summer because it will benefit him financially. He begins by blackmailing the wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) of Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) for $100,000, half of which will be delivered when Charlie’s services will no longer be needed. From this, it becomes clear that the film will in large part be a father/son bonding story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, although I am forced to question the logic of bringing them together through robot fighting, specifically Charlie’s shady sector of it. It isn’t long before Max is making bets of his own with some very dangerous people; this is innately unfunny, and yet Levy reduces it to the level of comedy relief.
While foraging through a robot junkyard one rainy night, Max literally stumbles onto an older generation model, which has been dubbed Atom. After claiming it as his own and cleaning it off, Max discovers that Atom was built to with highly durable metal able to withstand the toughest of abuse. It also has a shadow mode, which is to say that it can follow along with a person’s movements. Max and Charlie put two and two together and enter Atom into a number of underground fights, which eventually give way to a rising-star status in professional robot boxing. All leads to a climactic final match in a thundering sports arena, one that pits Atom against a reigning champion from Japan, all shiny chrome and sleek framing. I don’t care to dwell on the xenophobic implications of this fight. I will, however, make note of another obvious theme, namely a play on the underdog cliché: New doesn’t necessarily mean improved.
I mentioned at the start the movie’s technical merits, and indeed, it looks and sounds really good. With the exception of a disturbing opening scene between a robot and a live bull, I enjoyed watching all of the robot fights, made possible through a combination of animatronic effects and motion capture animation. The two blended so seamlessly that I could scarcely tell them apart. The problem lies in the fact that they held my attention more than the flesh and blood people did. Try as I might, I could not generate the slightest interest in Charlie, Max, or Bailey, mostly because they’re about as plastic as the toys this movie will undoubtedly generate. Without a convincing emotional anchor, without the human element, Real Steel is just a piece of machinery.
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