In Real Steel, Dreamworks’ lavishly photographed deadbeat-dad redemption story, retired boxer and practicing flim-flam man Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) explains the origin of robot boxing to his long-lost 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo). The action is set in the near future, sometime after 2016 (the exact year is vague). He and Max are reluctantly reunited after the boy’s mother dies, having not seen each other since Charlie bailed shortly after Max’s birth. In the decade in between, human boxers like Charlie have been replaced with heavily armored robots that tower over their human controllers.
I couldn’t wait to find out why. My favorite part of science fiction stories is when the journey from point A, life as we know it, to point B, life in the future, is finally spelled out for the audience. One deliciously cool revelation and everything makes sense. Whether it’s a classic like Blade Runner or something lesser like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the joy is in watching the brave new world come into focus, illuminating just how close today’s society might be to that spooky futuristic society. It’s that shiver of proximity that provides the perverse pleasure; ask anyone who saw Contagion.
But what a disappointing rationale Charlie gives for the evolution of boxing: “What people really wanted was true, no holds-barred violence,” he tells Max. Of course; people are pigs. But wait, what do robots have to do with true violence? Isn’t a bloodless sport between unfeeling machines the very definition of holds-barred? The worst thing that happens when the robots in Real Steel are in the ring is that things fall apart and, occasionally, a fluid that looks like battery acid oozes from the wreckage. The boy is about a thousand times smarter than his father — he’s learned Japanese from video games, capably rewires a robot they find at the dump and easily tricks Charlie into taking him on a cross country tour. (Charlie sells his parenting rights to Max’s aunt and creepy uncle, played by Hope Davis and James Rebhorn, but agrees to babysit for the summer). But Max doesn’t probe Charlie on this one.
I’d like to blame Real Steel on Transformers because I like to blame anything involving silly robots and sillier humans on Transformers whenever possible, but its origin dates back to Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story Steel. Real Steel made it to the small screen as an episode of The Twilight Zone in the 1960s, starring Lee Marvin as a robot controller in a world where human fighting had been outlawed. Marvin steps in for a broken bot in a fight [EM] he’s more man than machine — and for a while it seems possible that something similar might happen with Charlie and the robot Max salvages from the dump, reboots and christens Adam. Adam mirrors his operator (In the movies most appealing moments, there is a hint that he may be special, magical even) and there’s this expectation that Jackman may enter the ring again, leading to shirtlessness and revelations and lessons about humanity and fatherhood.
But the story remains sadly mired in botdom, which leads to some boredom. It’s hard to look away from the ever-dazzling Jackman, but the sight of him hunched over the controls of something akin to a live action video game is not, in the end, much more exciting than the sight of your average teenager hunched over the controls of a Game Boy. It’s all just technological fussing; there’s no urgency, no point to be made about strength or weakness. The acting matches that mood, with Jackman giving the kind of heightened, artificial performance that seems right out of the 1930s or ’40s. Goyo oozes confidence, but that too feels unnatural.
The movie was directed by Shawn Levy, of the Night at the Museum series and Date Night but cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar is the more dominant force at work. Fiore doesn’t have to work hard to make any of the sinfully attractive stars look good, certainly not Jackman, Goyo or Lost’s Evangeline Lily, who plays the ridiculous part of Bailey, the daughter of Charlie’s old boxing coach and his bot mechanic. But he puts a serious sheen on the robots (they make Darth Vader look like a dusty old thing) and on the surroundings, particularly the scenes of a verging-on-dystopian America. Whether it’s a ruined zoo or a county fair when a bull and a robot go head to head while a Ferris wheel spins nearby, Fiore makes Real Steel look like the real deal. What a tease.