'Real Steel' is Real Dumb

by Bill Gibron

7 October 2011

Channeling Spielberg...as well as dozens of Popcorn King imitators, (the director) winds up delivering a braindead blockbuster that is guaranteed to generate income, if not entertainment.
cover art

Real Steel

Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand

US theatrical: 7 Oct 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 14 Oct 2011 (General release)

Apparently, in a few short years, the MMA will cease to exist, Floyd Mayweather can stop avoiding Manny Pacquiao and we will move even closer to the future shock predictions of one…Stuart Gordon? Yes, the man who made Re-Animator into a gore cult classic once tripped the light science fantastic with his men in giant battle automaton garb… Robot Jox. A cumbersome combination of Rollerball and Saturday Morning cartooning come to life, the main narrative had wars and other major political and corporate differences decided by these oversized mechanical gladiators. Now, the concept has been taken to its kid vid roots and been retitled Real Steel. Actually, this failed experiment in action figure marketing has little in common with the Gordon effort. It, at least, was entertaining.

In the year 2027, failed boxer and even worse promoter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) has dragged his latest robot pugilist to a local state fair, the better to battle…a real life steer? Once he was a famous handler of these high tech warriors. Now, he is down and his luck and scrounging for whatever he can. Into his life walks forgotten son Max (Dakota Goyo), part of a custody battle between the State and the sister of his deceased ex-girlfriend. Demanding money to care for the kid over the Summer, Charlie sinks the cash into another automaton, only to see it lose and lose badly.
Hoping to scavenge something more sophisticated, he cruises a junk yard. There, Max comes across something buried beneath the garbage. It is a droid called Atom, a much older model that’s been modified to “shadow” the actions of its trainer. Within days of cleaning it up and working with it, the trio becomes an underground success. When they battle in the big time, they are initially rebuffed. But as Max and Charlie start to learn Atom’s secrets, they soon discover a scrappy little android that might be able to challenge the pros - even the monstrous mechanism known as Zeus.

Real Steel stinks. It panders and mollycoddles. It cottons to and fully favors a specific demographic. This is a movie made for the kind of mentality that still marvels at CG action, that finds unreal objects - in this case, oversized battling robots - as engaging and intriguing as all other pre-adolescent dreams. Yes, this is the first tween futurama, a movie where everything else about soon to be contemporary life is cast aside for more sequences of automatons kicking chassis. Any boy under the age of 12 will explode at the visuals and ‘kid as champion’ plotpoints. Adults will be mildly amused by the attempted scope and ersatz epic nature. As part of his growing oeuvre of crap, director Shawn Levy outdoes himself here. Channeling Spielberg (who Executive Produces) as well as dozens of Popcorn King imitators, he winds up delivering a braindead blockbuster that is guaranteed to generate income, if not entertainment.

Part of the problem here is Levy himself. The material requires someone with the skill to manipulate both the spectacle and the more minor moments. Though his films have made boatloads of cash, Levy has yet to prove he has the creative chops to handle this kind of stuff. His Night at the Museum movies have always been expensive direct to video tripe, cast into A-list legitimacy by the actors involved and the studio push. Even his lesser efforts - the Pink Panther remake, the recent Date Night - feel like half-baked bottom of the barrel pick-ups. He’s like Charles Band without the eye for schlock. There is no heart here, no feeling for Charlie, Max, or their broken family. Instead, the non-robot routines grow more and more dull until we’re begging for the big battle at the end.

Then there is the true lack of imagination. Even though it squandered a famous title and a stellar concept, I, Robot at least had something visual to say to its audience. It offered up images and ideas that spurred same, not carbon copies of the Transformers throttling each other. Everything about Real Steel is centered around the robots. They are given identities and skill sets which are guaranteed to make the transition to a console game with ease. All other elements are unimportant - Charlie’s backstory; Max’s life the last 10 years; the cutthroat couple who demand to adopt him; the various rogues and scallywags our heroes must overcome; even the Japanese genius behind Zeus is superficial and suggestive, making way for what has to be a planned series of sequels.

Indeed, Real Steel is also one of those few films that anticipate its own popularity and pulls back, knowing to give the viewer just enough to make another go-round all the more viable. Within this world, we know little about the various dynamics. In this world, we aren’t sure what will happen with Charlie and Max. In this world, we are given only snippets of significant information. Trust that everyone behind the scenes are scanning preview cards and reading focus group reports in order to keep the mythology straight. Before long, we will see how Levy and his lame indulgences (the man truly thinks he’s generating a new American Gothic with his various pans and far off vistas) will sign on for a huge pay raise, all to give Atom and Zeus their Rocky mandated rematch.

In fact, if Sylvester Stallone was smart, he’d get together with the estate of Richard Matheson (whose short story - and eventual Twilight Zone episode - “Steel” was supposedly the foundation for this film) and Harlan Ellison and sue the stuffing out of Dreamworks. Real Steel is nothing more than a certain ‘70s Philly pugilist retrofitted with enough squared circle speculative bells and whistles to keep the sci-fi geeks enflamed. It’s a novelty where nothing is new except the manipulation via metal. We are supposed to root for Atom, to play the underdog card just long enough for the Tinseltown formulas to kick in. For the most part, this movie will generate a kind of buzz among the grade school set. Everyone else will see the subterfuge behind the splash. 

Real Steel


We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article