When I was working at Jim Henson Pictures, we had a film tentatively titled Giant Robot on our slate, and while it sadly got stuck in development hell (the place where Hollywood projects go to die), working on that script with the writers was one of those perfect geek moments where you get to combine something you love with something you love doing.
We would not have been the first to tackle such a project, with a long line of Japanese films and television shows before us, as well as the cheesy yet enjoyable Robot Jox having preceded us by many years. But what tends to boggle the mind is that with a concept as awesome as a massive robot, the best that the movie industry has been able to give us has until recently been The Iron Giant. Heck, they even fumbled the iconic Japanese Astro Boy, which should have been nigh-impossible. Then again, this is Hollywood we're talking about.
With Guillermo del Toro's awesome Pacific Rim towering on the horizon, and a possible Transformers reboot (albeit still with Michael Bay at the helm) on the way, there are a lot of fighting robots in our future. But as far as circuits and steel pounding it out in the ring, we're highlighting the fun and often overlooked Real Steel to go with Transformers: Fall of Cybertron.
Then came the trailer for the film, which dashed my crystalline dreams into shards. It looked like an instantly forgettable movie that would be shelved and bargain-binned in no time. I was wrong. It proved that it's better to go into a film with very low expectations and be blown away rather than expecting the film you're about to see to change your life.
Real Steel began life as a Richard Matheson short story in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction back in 1956, and then became an episode of The Twilight Zone (with Lee Marvin) in 1963. But both the original story and the television episode focused on the human side of this robot boxing sport. Real Steel took that model and changed it, portraying Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer desperately trying to eke out a living in robot boxing, which has replaced the human sport entirely.
The heart of the story concerns Kenton on his last legs as a second-rate robot boxer, losing a match in spectacular fashion and having his robot reduced to a pile of scrap. But when his ex-girlfriend dies, leaving him in sole custody of his young son, Max, he discovers he can turn a quick buck by basically selling the kid to his sister-in-law (who wants full custody) for enough money to buy a new robot. But the condition is that he has to watch Max for a few weeks.
Max soon discovers this underhanded move, and uses it to blackmail his way into the world of fighting robots with Charlie. Charlie blows his money on Noisy Boy, a has-been robot who still has some life left in him, but in his first match he's humiliated, leaving Charlie and Max to break into a junkyard to find enough spare parts to rebuild the bot. That's where Max finds Atom, an old sparring robot, buried under mud and junk. Despite Charlie's objections, Max takes Atom in and cleans him up, setting the wheels of a Rocky-like ascension to glory in motion.
The film succeeds on this journey for several reasons, first and foremost of which is an entirely realized, nearly NASCAR-esque vision of robot boxing. With sponsors, arenas, undercards and larger-than-life opponents, this feels like a real sport. That's underscored by the powerful CG scenes that show these slabs of iron whaling each other with blows that would kill a human being. The wide variety of bots, from Atom to Noisy Boy to Zeus, flesh out this fantasy, and will make you wish that they'd put out a 12-inch movie-accurate model of Atom. Which they didn't, unfortunately.
The other reason the film works is because of the smiling mug of Dakota Goyo as Max Kenton. His charm as a young kid is hard to resist, and you feel every bit of his sadness and every moment of his joy. Plus, he has a fantastic chemistry with Jackman as they stumble through a not exactly loving father/son relationship.
That's not to say that the movie isn't without problems. The lovely Evangeline Lilly as Charlie's love interest, Bailey, isn't given anything really interesting to do other than just be there for Charlie, and the one real regret I have about this film is that she didn't have a stronger role. Well, that and the fact that the steel-jawed, wild-eyed pilot of Zeus gives such a hammy and over-the-top performance.
Where You Can Watch Real Steel
Real Steel is available on Amazon for instant watching at $14.99, and on the Xbox for 1600 points ($20) in high definition, and 1360 points ($17) in standard definition. On the PlayStation Network you'll find it for $19.99 and $14.99 to own in HD and SD, and $19.99 to own in both HD and SD, which makes you wonder why there's even a standalone HD version if it's the same price. There's no rental pricing on either the Xbox or the PlayStation for this title.
You can also pick this up on DVD and Blu-ray for under twenty bucks, where surprisingly the DVD is actually slightly more expensive than the two-disc Blu-ray version. If you want the three-disc Blu-ray set, which also includes a digital copy, it'll run you just over $30. Unless you really want a digital copy, my advice is to pick up the two-disc Blu-ray version. It looks fantastic in high definition, and includes an incredibly robust Second Screen option, which allows you to follow along with the film on your tablet or laptop. Director Shawn Levy is energetic through this feature, which he hosts, and there's a wealth of photos, videos, and behind-the-scenes footage to go along with it. Highly recommended.
Real Steel isn't what hardcore robot fans are demanding, which is probably where Pacific Rim will step in. But this movie is highly entertaining, has a great heart and makes you wish that the Robot Boxing League would just go ahead and get here already.
Kevin Kelly is a writer and pop culture junkie with a fixation on video games, movies, and board games. His writing has been seen at Moviefone, io9, Film School Rejects, TechRadar, Wizard World, G4, and The Austin Chronicle. He lives in Los Angeles and does not know how to surf. Follow him on Twitter @kevinkelly.