One of the most fascinating and appalling aspects of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise is his bizarre, debased interpretation of what constitutes all-ages fun. Each installment is like a children’s movie made by someone who thinks children are super-lame (which is to say, hyperactive 12-year-olds). Doubtless many kids do enjoy those movies anyway—they feature robots beating the bolts out of each other, as well as an allegedly likable young protagonist—but probably despite Bay’s efforts, not because of them.
Shawn Levy’s Real Steel offers some of the same. It also features robots beating the bolts out of each other, one of its allegedly likable protagonists is even younger, and, while technically based on a Richard Matheson story, its premise is toy-like: Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with more noise. That young-audience-courting protagonist is 11-year-old Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo), the forgotten son of forgotten boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman). In a near future where human boxing is obsolete and robot boxing rules, Charlie has become a two-bit hustler, trying to make money off of fighting robots at county fairs and in underground matches. In a series of unnecessary logistical complications, Charlie takes temporary summer custody of Max, who has never known his father (rendering his now-deceased mother’s decision to have him keep Charlie’s last name a bit puzzling).
Without the child along, it seems that Charlie’s summer would consist of scrounging for robot parts in junkyards and trying to win robot fight money to pay back his creditors, as well as his landlord/ex-girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). But, as the story’s gears grind into place, Max finds a discarded sparring bot called Atom, and insists on fixing it up. He’s allowed this stubbornness because Max is one of those parlor-trick movie kids who talks like a tiny adult, which I believe we’re meant to find scrappy and darling, rather than insufferable and sitcom-ready. Goyo may well turn out to be talented. At this point, he blends in well with the rest of the cast, whom Levy has apparently instructed to overact like crazy. Jackman leads the way by mixing his tough-guy Wolverine persona with Broadway-style carnival barking. This may sound like more fun than it actually is.
This is true for most of Real Steel: it sounds like a streamlined, more human, less bombastic version of Transformers, but turns out to be just as adept at squandering its own fun ideas, in this case, about the fusion of robots and sports. Take the notion of how to train a fighting robot: as explained here, it’s a mixture of videogame skills and strategic boxing programming, but the movie then reduces these complexities to semi-nonsensical training montages that serve the movie’s formulaic needs more than a practical purpose (why would a programmed robot need to keep practicing the same moves over and over like a real boxer?).
Even beyond such simple logistics, the filmmakers waffle on the subject of Atom’s sentience: he can be programmed to mimic human subjects, which leads to lots of cutesiness between Atom and Max (if you loved Max’s wisecracking-beyond-his-years, wait until you see his adorable dance moves!). Atom is also outfitted with voice-recognition software, but at several points, Max and even Charlie talk to the robot as if it can understand them and not just follow simple commands. Max in particular seems half-convinced that his robot is more than a machine, yet the movie isn’t interested asking whether this is a delusion or just more strategy.
Thinking or not, Atom is the movie’s most compelling object. He and the rest of the robots have neat designs, less busy than their transforming cousins, and the special effects (mostly computer animation, some models) are seamless, some of the best-looking of the year. Levy has previously specialized in crummy-looking comedies where at best he would get out of funny actors’ way (Date Night) and at worst would step on any possible laughs with clumsy staging (Cheaper by the Dozen). This resume makes Real Steel technical achievement all the more impressive. Levy has somehow made a slick-looking Bruckheimer-lite blockbuster with easy-to-follow fights and iconic-looking low-angle shots of Jackman and Goyo escorting their robo-buddy into the ring.
But like an amped-up gamer, Levy keeps punching the emotional uplift buttons. He can shine beams of light through tons of windows, but it doesn’t make him Steven Spielberg. In Super 8, J.J. Abrams tried his hand at overlapping dialogue to evoke the Spielberg of E.T., to great effect. Levy seems to be attempting something similar here by having most of his characters yammer at each other, which leads to some embarrassingly inarticulate banter between Charlie and Bailey.
Everything about their relationship—really, everything about any relationship in the movie—is broad and telegraphed. This would be less of a problem if Real Steel included more interesting sci-fi tangents, like the occasional glimpses into robot boxing’s freaky underside. One no-holds-barred match takes place in an abandoned zoo, a poor man’s Flesh Fair from A.I., in front of a crowd that looks imported from a Mad Max knockoff. It’s no more subtle or original than the rest of the movie, but it has a weird energy, at least.
Most of the time, though, Real Steel applies its energy to the father-son-underdog-redemption cycle, complete with evil foreign bad guys (Zeus, the world-champion robot fighter, is financed by a Russian lady and programmed by a Japanese man! Booo, foreigners!). The assumption seems to be that if the movie is loud and insistent enough, audiences will get riled up along with Jackman and Goyo—and that might be right. Real Steel is aligned with Michael Bay’s universe, though with less music-video flash. That said, a crucial distinction remains: if Bay’s idea of a mass-appeal movie is fascinatingly misguided, Levy just panders. The movie is a faux-rousing tribute to the stupid science of robot boxing.