In the near future when people become uninterested in boxing and similar sports, a new sport is created - Robot boxing wherein robots battle each other while being controlled by someone. Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who's trying to make it in the new sport, not only doesn't do well, he is very deeply in the red. When he learns that his ex, mother of his son Max, dies, he goes to figure out what to do with him. His ex's sister wants to take him in but Charlie has first say in the matter. Charlie asks her husband for money so he can buy a new Robot in exchange for turning Max over to them. He takes Max for the summer. And Max improves his control of his robot. But when the robot is destroyed, they go to a scrap yard to get parts. Max finds an old generation robot named Atom and restores him. Max wants Atom to fight but Charlie tells him he won't last a round. However, Atom wins. And it isn't long before Atom is getting major bouts. Max gets Charlie to teach Atom how to fight, and the ... Written by
What a little gem Real Steel could have been. Well before its release, and before any intricate plot details became known, this sounded like an intelligent film in which robots are forced to engage in brutal fights for the entertainment of their human masters. Where the story would've gone from there is left to the imagination, but it appeared to have all the makings of critically acclaimed, self-conscious science fiction. The final product differed heavily from initial expectations, however, and we are left with a hollow, albeit bearable alternative prompting those such as myself to ask: What could have been?
In the very near future (2020, according to director Shawn Levy) the human art of man-to-man combat has become obsolete. One-time fighters have been replaced by robots that do the dirty work while their human controllers reap the rewards. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is one such promoter, recently down on his luck and who lives not for the bright lights, but to make just enough money to survive. At this most inopportune time, he is forced to take care of his estranged son (Dakota Goyo), whose burgeoning friendship with an outdated sparring 'bot named Atom convinces Charlie to give the big time one last shot.
For a movie that has the skeleton to accommodate exploring the concept of human qualities in machines, a la Blade Runner or Artificial Intelligence, as well as (warning: pretentiousness ahead) the theme of 'ethics and morals of humanity', it actually does everything it can to avoid those topics entirely. My hopes for such a film were all but dashed with the casting of a child- a sure sign that the story would be strictly focused on Max and Charlie's relationship, and in that respect the plot seems unnecessarily restricted. This results in an inherently out-of-place scene in which Atom, all alone before a big fight, gazes into a mirror as if to question his existence. Its inclusion into the final cut is sure to whiz above the heads of its pre-teen target audience, while more mature viewers might interpret it as a cheap attempt to inject some heart far too late into the story.
Indeed, its family-friendly status is the biggest letdown of Real Steel. At the forefront is the misguided characterisation of Charlie's son, who is portrayed as, in my opinion, a spoiled brat who's so cocksure of himself all the time that a little part of you wants to see him fail. The child as an authority figure may appeal to those of Max's age, but it detracts from the contrasting, gritty realism of Jackman's character, and shuts down any hope of character-based realism in the process. Other attempts to please the male tween market include obvious allusions to toy lines and video games, as well as a mind-boggling assault of product placement, which becomes more than a little irritating during the second half.
The script is not disastrous. The writers dabble in clichés occasionally, but not quite to the point where it numbs the mind. On a more negative note, the screenplay does allow for an assortment of cringe-worthy moments (which some might call 'heart-warming', depending on personal perspective) that include dancing robots and the introduction of more than one excessively cartoonish side character, again limiting the level of engagement one can make with this movie.
The action set pieces in the film were visually pleasing, exploiting a decent amount of camera angles to give the viewer an intriguing look into the mechanics of robot rumbling. The CGI is impressive, and the clunky (as opposed to slick) movements of the robots actually work well, reflecting what a realistic fight between two heavy machines would look like. Jackman does his best as always, but he alone can't salvage a once-promising prospect that instead settles for being the very definition of blockbuster mediocrity.
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