Like many big-budget machines posing as cinema, Real Steel is a litmus test in film spectatorship. Shawn Levy’s half-assed attempt to capture Spielbergian landscapes and themes blatantly packs every moment with some kind of cliché and plot convention, begging the viewer to passively lap it up and not think twice. So it’s a bit disheartening then that the sold-out audience at my press screening cheered every time one robot punched another, like it was something completely fresh and entertaining. Is this lowest common denominator stuff really that enticing to people? Are we really this forgiving?
My critical opinion aside, the audience’s celebratory reaction to such recycled drivel also disproves a thesis robot trainer and all around terrible father Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) tells his estranged and royally precocious son Max (Dakota Goyo) during a prophetic speech about robot boxing, our entertainment of choice in a not-so-distant future: “People want to see something they haven’t.” Actually, they don’t, and that’s why the moronic Real Steal will probably be seen by far more people than a film like Warrior, a brutally frank treatment of gladiatorial human beings that failed to find an audience. But that’s our virtual reality.
Real Steel’s staggering 127-minute running time, which extends the Rocky narrative to obscene lengths while erasing all its emotion, is not only excessive but also indicative of the film’s obsession with extended moments of swagger. Taking the modern day celebration dance to the next extreme, each robot in Real Steel attains personality through their human controller’s vanity. It’s just one of the many times man passively allows a machine to express their own repressed dreams and rectify glaring failures. Of course this approach is amplified for maximum cuteness when it comes to the absurdly smart and ambitious Max, who tweaks this coda by performing a Justin Bieber-style dance routine with his robot Atom before every fight.
For a film purporting to be about the genuine need for father/son communication, Real Steel seems more concerned with the way people promote themselves outside plausible value systems. Our increasing need for attention and notoriety is glamorized with rousing fight scenes and rewarding bits of unearned resolution. Money is valued, but power becomes an even more precious commodity. As a result, Charlie’s conflicted relationship with Max is laughable, a lifeless expression of redemption by default that slides from memory like jelly down a slick surface.
By the end of Real Steel, Charlie’s brutish outlook on life does feel true in one respect. While explaining to Max the sport’s transition from human boxing to robot boxing, he explains that people demanded more carnage yet didn’t want actual humans ripping each other apart in the ring (that never stopped them before). So they turned to robots. This idea is interesting on paper, but Levy fails to even consider the moral ramifications of this cultural shift a la Spielberg’s own A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. No, Real Steel is content to assume it all happened in a simple vacuum, a headspace where audiences, both real and imagined, won’t care either way as long as enough robot debauchery flashes across the screen. Consider the bell officially rung.