Many people understandably have little tolerance for watching other people play computer games. After all, they’re not directly involved. Watching somebody else interact with something fun does not necessarily mean that their sense of entertainment will survive the transition to an uninvolved third party.
This is an issue in Shawn Levy’s (loose) adaptation of Steel, a Richard Matheson short story. In the near future, regular human on human boxing has been replaced by ‘Real Steel’, a form of boxing in which humans control robot competitors from the sidelines while their avatars wail on each other in metallic smackdowns. Audiences, apparently, just got too bored of seeing humans beating each other senseless.
Washed up ex-boxer and now robot-operator/manager Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) bitterly recounts this (largely unbelievable) back story to his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) as the two of them hunt for spare parts in an apocalyptic waste disposal facility. They’ve been thrown together against their wishes; Charlie has agreed to endure his son’s company for a couple of months while his rich sister-in-law, who actually wants to look after the boy, goes on holiday with her husband, who doesn’t. The latter has covertly agreed a deal with Charlie that if he keeps the kid out of his hair for a couple of months, he’ll give him $100,000. That money should get Charlie back in the robot battling game after the latest in a string of expensive failures.
At said waste facility, Max stumbles upon an unusual, apparently out-of-date robot which he believes can be a star. At first, Charlie doesn’t share his enthusiasm, but it quickly becomes apparent they have something special on their hands. The new robot features an apparently rare ‘shadow function’ which allows it to mimic the movements of its controller. Hence, there is an opportunity for Charlie to dig out his old boxing skills by programming the thing to move like a good old fashioned human boxer. Cue a journey of familial bonding in which the reluctant father and son are forced to work together to form a winning partnership.
The film is a decidedly mixed bag. As has already been mentioned, the robot bouts themselves (and there are a fair few) suffer from a lack of direct interest. Most of the robots we see getting trashed are bland avatars – nothing more than punch fodder. They’re not characters, they’re toys. Even Atom – Max’s robot of choice – despite being given a hint of characterisation, evokes no emotional reaction when he gets pummelled. The nature of the ‘sport’ means that we get lots of footage of people holding remote controls, looking up at their avatars in the ring, shouting instructions and desperately hammering unseen buttons. This grows thin very quickly. They look like they’re having much more fun than we are. By the time we reach the film’s finale – a long robot duel interspersed by jarring slow-mo reaction shots – the whole thing has lost its interest. At one point Jackman is forced to ‘shadow box’ at the side of the ring, leading to unintentionally hilarious shots of him standing on his own, grinning and punching thin air. At other times, the mechanics of how the humans actually control their robots is baffling and nonsensical.
Jackman gives a thoroughly unremarkable performance as Charlie, one that desperately calls out for the charisma we know he is capable of bringing. He shouts his way through half of his scenes. Goyo is decent, carrying the film confidently, and despite the fact that his character develops an irritatingly over-confident attitude at times, some of his moments alone with Atom are genuinely touching. One scene in particular, in which Max uses his own movements to encourage the robot to pick him up, is nicely done. Charlie’s love interest is supplied by Evangeline Lily, who does her best in a role which is intermittently sidelined. Product placement routinely distracts, while the film’s bombastic licensed soundtrack is a little overdone, occasionally giving the impression that we’re watching an over-produced, corporate-sponsored music video.
At least the film understands that the human characters are the important ones, not the faceless robots, and it chooses – just about – to focus on that aspect. B ut in the end, the script doesn’t do enough with the father-son element to keep us involved, and the CGI robot fights aren’t sufficiently exciting to make us care about the rest.