Today: April 19, 2024
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Real Steel

Or Robot Wars: The Movie! If names like Sir Killalot, Firestorm, Sgt. Bash and Roadblock make you feel all tingly then in the late 90s and early 2000s you were probably (a) a colossal dweeb and (b) a fan of Robot Wars on the BBC.

Or Robot Wars: The Movie!

If names like Sir Killalot,
Firestorm, Sgt. Bash and Roadblock make you feel all tingly then in the late
90s and early 2000s you were probably (a) a colossal dweeb and (b) a fan of Robot
Wars on the BBC. You may have told
the few friends you had that you found it “funny” in a post-ironic
fashion. You may even have told
yourself you were just watching it purely for geek pin-up girl Philippa
Forrester. But secretly, deep
down, in the darkest, blackest recesses of your soul, you knew you were
watching it because you wanted to see robots hit each other.

That’s also why you’ve defended
the Transformer movies (even the
second one) because despite knowing they’re garbage, you can’t help but
watch. You’re like a puppy drinking
the cinematic equivalent of effluent and being constantly surprised when it
repeats on you. You just like
films where robots punch each other.

Well, if you like films with
little or no plot worth mentioning but plenty of robots punching each other
action, then you’re in luck because Real
Steel
is probably the best film you’ll see which has robots punching each
other purely for your amusement until the inevitable Rocky 2-style sequel hits our screens sometime in the next two
years.

Based on a rather simplistic
dumbing-down of Richard Matheson’s
classic short story Steel (already
filmed as a Twilight Zone episode with Lee
Marvin
in the Wolverine role) the plot is simple: It’s the near
future. Boxing, wrestling, cage
fighting and, judging by the opening scenes, rodeos have all been replaced as
spectator sports by, wait for it, Robot Wars. I mean Boxing, Robot Boxing.

Wolverine plays
Charlie, a hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck ex-boxer who coulda been a contendah
instead of the bum he is now. Charlie
turns a shady buck travelling round the country fairs and low-rent boxing
arenas of Smalltown USA, just him and his fighting robot, hustling for beer,
WD-40 and gas money, chasing the big score and trying to stay one step ahead of
all the dodgy geezers he owes money to.

When his robot is destroyed in a
fight with a live rodeo steer and Charlie finds out the mother of the son he
abandoned in infancy has just died, he does what any down-on-his-luck ex-boxer
in a Hollywood blockbuster about robots that punch each other would do and
tries to sell the little tyke, Max (Dakota
Goyo
) to his rich aunt and uncle who’ve always wanted a little orphan to
call their own. The only catch is
Charlie has to take care of Max for the Summer while his new Mom and Dad are
holidaying in Europe. Guess
what? Yup. Pretty soon father and son are
grudgingly bonding as they work together to fix up new robot, Atom, and get him
a shot at the title against bad boy bot, Zeus.

Sickeningly schmaltzy, Real Steel is a thoroughly dispiriting
waste of your time. It’s like The Champ remade with Transformers and an obligatory
Spielberg happy ending. And what’s
the point of that? A cynical
exercise in corporate filmmaking (note how prominent Max’s favourite soft drink
is in practically every scene), the worst thing about Real Steel is how like it’s robot boxers it is; mechanically
effective but soulless. Unlike
say, the Transformers, the robots in this move show no signs of sentience, no
sign of self-awareness. Even Atom,
whom Max treats like a lumbering 9-foot tall, 2-ton puppy is just a puppet
controlled for much of the film by remote control though he also has a nifty
visual recognition programme that allows him to ape the shadow-boxing Charlie. But if the robots aren’t sentient, if
they aren’t people, the fights
themselves have no tension, no excitement. Sure they’re spectacular, action-packed spectacles but if
the robots were self-aware you wouldn’t be enjoying the fights quite so much. Because if the robots were self-aware
and we still made them fight, why, then they’d be slaves. And one thing the movies have taught us
is that keeping slaves makes you evil!
And that’s just a moral and ethical question this film isn’t touching
with a barge pole. So, the robots
aren’t smart and you’re free to enjoy them beating on each other but if you’re
not worried about the protagonists getting hurt, who cares?

And there lies Real Steel’s biggest problem; you just
don’t care. It looks great,
creating an effectively believable down-homey world with its mix of high and
low tech and while its unlikely Jackman
and Evangeline Lilly will be getting
any Oscar nominations for their performances, they’re not terrible. Goyo is, but then he’s a kid playing a
badly written plot device, a vehicle simply for Jackman’s Charlie to learn some
humility and ultimately redeem himself.
Other than that, he’s along to trash talk the other robots and trainers
like a pygmy Don King and to teach Atom to street dance like only a pre-teen
white kid could.

What’s really disappointing
however is how badly it measures up to Matheson’s original story. In Steel,
when his robot malfunctions, the down-on-his-luck protagonist ends up
disguising himself as a robot and entering the ring in its place where he is
beaten to a bloody pulp. In Real Steel, Charlie stands by the side
of the ring, shadow-boxing, allowing Atom to copy his moves. Steel was about the
triumph of the indomitable human spirit, Real
Steel
wants to put a Dr Pepper in your paw.

And could somebody please give
Steven Spielberg a hug? Maybe get
him to phone his dad? Please? For forty years now, the bearded
child-man has been working out his abandonment and daddy issues on celluloid
and we’ve been paying for the privilege.
He didn’t even direct Real Steel,
just exec produced but his fingerprints are all over it.

He’s like one of those kids in the
playground whose father was in prison but whose mother had told him he was a
pilot so he’d wave at ever plane that went past on the off-chance daddy was the
pilot. So Spielberg gives us
Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters;
a deadbeat dad abandoning his family for a mountain of mashed potatoes and a
ride in a flying saucer. He gives
us Indiana Jones and his daddy; swashbuckling, globetrotting archeologists. I don’t remember if Ralph Fiennes had
any father/son moments in Schindler’s
List
but I’m sure Spielberg considered it. “My dad does love me; he’s just busy being a
pilot/fireman/globe trotting archeologist/murdering 6 million Jews…’

Who knows Stephen? Maybe if you hadn’t been quite such a
spoiled, unlikable little brat like Max, Daddy would’ve stayed married to
Mommy. At least that way, maybe
you wouldn’t have forced all to sit through the interminable A.I.
Still, I suppose Real Steal
was still better than the last two
Transformers
movies.

And, if you like films that
revolve around robots punching each other, you’ll love it.

But then, if you like films that
revolve around robots punching each other, I’m guessing you’re probably not
reading this.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website: thekolsocial.com

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