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.
Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Kevin Durand, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune
John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Leven based on the Richard Matheson short story Steel