Battlebots, by David Bax
Disney’s newest live action feature, Real Steel, has got to be one of the loudest movies ever made. It stands to reason that scenes of ten foot tall robots punching each other would be pretty noisy but even when that’s not happening, the decibel level seems nigh immeasurable. The mere act of one of these machines taking a step forward is deafening, like the sound of a building coming down. Scenes that are robot free don’t provide any refuge from the aural onslaught either. Outdoor scenes contain such prominent cricket noises, you’d think the movie was about the insects. It’s the most overproduced sound design I can recall.
A cynical person might surmise from this that the filmmakers are intentionally bombarding you with stimulation; that maybe this assaultive aesthetic choice is there to keep you from being able to think too much. However, the temptation to not think – the desire to give yourself over to the tidal wave – is not there because there’s no artistic context or coherent point of view. It is simply constant and cacophonous.
If you are lucky enough to be able to form thoughts while watching Real Steel, you’ll quickly notice that just below the surface of the inspirational family tale is a movie of rather questionable morals. You may be able to get past the fact that the film begins with what seems to be a celebration of animal cruelty. The bull may be CGI but the idea of people cheering a robot pummeling it is treated realistically and, upsettingly, like a whole lot of fun. After that, though, it gets deeper. Charlie (Hugh Jackman) explains to his heretofore estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo), that robot boxing has come about in this near-future world because the kind of carnage audiences were clamoring for couldn’t be achieved with flesh and blood humans. The film treats this recognition of the dark truth of human nature only as back story, not as a theme to be explored or commented upon. The base bloodlust on display is so matter of fact that, if it weren’t for all the fresh cans of Dr. Pepper, you’d think you were watching The Road.
Setting aside the problems with the film’s social merits, Real Steel actually comes a lot closer than you would think to being a good, fun two hours. The story is of former human boxer Charlie, who now controls fighting robots in the underground and amateur circuits. When his ex-girlfriend dies, he has to deal with the question of what to do with the now eleven year old son he’s never met. The boy’s aunt, played by Hope Davis, is married to a wealthy man, (the underutilized James Rebhorn) and is perfectly willing to adopt him. In need of cash, though, Charlie makes a deal with Rebhorn’s character – who dresses like an adult so you can tell he’s a rich prick – to keep Max around through the summer and deposit him back into his aunt’s care when the affluent couple return from a Tuscan vacation. When Max unearths and then becomes attached to a long forgotten former training robot, he and Charlie train it to be a dark horse contender. Evangeline Lilly is in the movie too but more on her in a second.
Despite being longer than it needs to be, the film actually uses its time wisely. Montages are used simply to advance the plot to where it needs to be and actual time is devoted to the bonding and growing of Charlie and Max. The fights, taken on their own, are actually quite fun. A black market contest that takes place in an abandoned zoo is particularly enjoyable if only because everything about it, from the setting to the “scary” people who run the fight, is almost knowingly ludicrous. But the main way in which the film goes wrong is with its dialogue. None of it is very good and there is far too much of it.
Lilly plays Charlie’s childhood friend/love interest/landlord Bailey, who exists in the film solely as a replacement for any actual character development. The screenplay doesn’t trust us to figure out what kind of a person Charlie is based on his own actions. Instead, Bailey is constantly telling him, “You do this”; “You’re the kind of person who would do this”; “You used to be like this but now you’re like this.” Lilly has never been an exceedingly gifted actor but it’s still hard not to feel sorry for her in her thankless task here.
Hers is not the only bad performance either. As usual, Jackman’s natural role as a stage performer is jarringly evident as he play to the back row and is constantly aware of where the best lighting is in a given shot. Young Goyo may bring a lot of energy but the part asks too much from him both in terms of speechifying and, God help him, dancing.
To its credit, no one involved in Real Steel or its marketing can be accused of false advertisement. If you want to see big robots walloping on one another, there is plenty of that to enjoy. And if you want to see the shallow, saccharine, ultimately heartstring tugging tale of familial redemption promised by the trailer, you’ll be satisfied by that too. But if you step into the movie theater hoping to be transported or even surprised by what you experience, only disappointment and damaged eardrums await you.