Real Steel is an expertly crafted bit of classical Hollywood cotton candy, reminiscent both of Amblin Entertainment's family fare of the 1980s, as well as the pulpy FX-ridden mayhem of Charles Band's Empire Pictures (like Robot Jox
) of the same era, but what elevates the film past being an excellent bit of commodified sugar rush is how the film's technology intersects with its text. Call it Motion-Capture: The Movie, but also call it one of the best Hollywood films of 2011.
A very loose adaptation of Richard Matheson's short story and subsequent Twilight Zone episode Steel, which depicted a future where human boxing has been supplanted by the robotic variety, this family-film take knock's out the conceit of having a human disguised as a robot fight in the ring for an endearing yarn about an estranged father, Charlie (Hugh Jackman), bonding with his son Max (Dakota Goyo) over the sport as they find they find themselves training a junky scrapyard robot called Atom and taking it to the championships. In a clever twist of the original premise, Atom is a rare robot with a unique bit of hardware that allows it to imitate the movements of its user with perfect 1 to 1 synchronicity. So while Hugh Jackman never physically enters the ring as in the original story, "man's capacity to rise to the occasion... his tenacity and optimism", to quote Rod Sterling's narration, is nonetheless preserved, albeit channeled through a machine. Despite Atom's success in boxing being attributed to its unique capacity to receive more blows then normal robots, its climactic bout hinges entirely on its ability to channel human motion, which the film equivocates with human passion. Motion-capture in this case is also emotion-capture.
As it happens, "emotion" has long been the elusive element in Hollywood's motion-capture or mo-cap extensive productions. Frequently utilized in animated films in the pursuit of photo-realism, the result is more often then not a cast of uncomfortably vacuous looking golems whose inhumanity is always betrayed by what is colloquially known as a case of the "dead-eyes". This is not to say that strides have not been made with this technology. "Motion-capture," which involves the scanning of an actor's movements and subsequent translation into a digital subject, in fact has used up its cache as an industry buzz-word, replaced by "performance-capture" and its concentrated effort to better recreate the emotional performance of an actor through more sophisticated sensors and more sensitive scanning. There have been triumphs, such as Andy Serkis' digital portrayal of Gollum or King Kong, or James Cameron''s expressive and big-eyed Na'vi in Avatar, but these characters are almost always in the realm of the fantastic and the alien.
The robots of Real Steel do not attempt to make such an ambitious bid at humanity. Silent goliaths, they do not speak or betray complex personality, they merely move - but oh how they move! They have weight! Gravity has a hold of them, and they refuse to flip and pirouette like Michael Bay's Transformers, instead they move with such deliberateness and clear precision that the audience can behold and appreciate their martial prowess and choreography, choreography I should add, that was performed by real boxers and overseen by champion boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.
Consider too, the elegant simplicity of the robot's designs. Rather then a swath of complex moving parts, they are rigidly defined, occasionally smooth and streamlined, but all are uniformly boxy and coherent in shape. The success of this design is most readily apparent in an unusually quiet moment in the film where our protagonist-bot Atom is left alone in a work-room, facing a mirror. Its head is pointed towards its likeness in the mirror, implying a gaze, but this implication is entirely driven by our supposition that there is a consciousness beneath the metal. That the empty stare of Atom's two blue LED eyes and mouth-like scratch of metal (its only discernibly human facial features) signify the presence of a contemplative emotional interior is a testament to how a minimalist design, one that eschews total human verisimilitude for caricature, can successfully navigate the oft-cited uncanny valley, a theory in robotics (and CG animation) that observes that human's invariably react increasingly negatively to an artificial subject the closer it gets to simulating human behavior. It is a subtle alchemy, and Real Steel pulls it off. Who da thunk that bouts between vacuous automatons could be this exciting?
Of course, its the context that surrounds all this top-notch tech that ignites the necessary emotional spark needed to care about the rock'em sock'em proceedings. The family melodrama of a deadbeat dad bonding with his estranged son through a sport may be pure formula, but there's a classical elegance in its steadfast adherence to generic tropes and archetypes. Refreshingly cynicism-free, it eschews the convoluted plotting all to common in contemporary effects pictures and concentrates on establishing strong binaries in its themes and character relationships (father:son, humility:pride, poor:rich, robot:man). These generic pairings are fittingly complimentary to the film's motion-capture technology that so frequently emphasizes the notion of 1:1 synchronicity between two subjects. From one angle this is largely what the film is about - the building of connections between individuals, forging a mutual understanding, getting on the same page, etc.
But like any good piece of science-fiction, the film does allow for some healthy speculative ambiguity, the most effective of which is the question of Atom's sentience. Is there a ghost in the machine? A little bit of Jiminy Cricket-style Disney magic behind the robot's unwavering determination? Fortunately Atom doesn't turn out to be possessed by the spirit of young Max's mother in a misguided attempt to explicate the humanization of a machine, nor does Atom break free of his connection with Charlie and win a fight itself. The significance of Atom is in its surrogate status. Atom is a tool for Max to reach his father, and a tool for Charlie to hear his son and in turn regain his confidence. Atom never gives up, because neither do they. Atom wins because Charlie is able to give it something none of the other robots have: passion. In the climax, when Max cries the age old single tear, he's not looking at Atom anymore - he's proudly looking at his father.
This doesn't preclude the possibility of a little deus ex machina, such ambiguity in a Hollywood flick is always welcome, and the film invites us on at least two occasions (the aforementioned mirror scene being the most profound moment) to ruminate the possibility that there's a soul within Atom's battered metal and wiring. But the story doesn't never demand this question to be satisfied. Again, this is Charlie's story. Anyway, the real question we need to be asking is WHY THE HECK HASN'T MICROSOFT COMMISSIONED A KINECT GAME OUT OF THIS YET?!
Frankly even after writing all this, I'm still a bit in awe that Real Steel works as well as it does. Shawn Levy's prior work has been mostly middling family comedies, and while Night of the Museum may have demonstrated a proficiency in special effects, they're in a whole other league here. Add the sophisticated and mercifully (mostly) exposition free world-building, some earnest, inoffensive, but plenty infectious sentimentality, as well as Danny Elfman delivering perhaps his most memorable score in a decade and you've got not only a perfect storm of a blockbuster, but one of the best contemporary examples of how tech and text need not be exclusive, but two parts of a harmonious feel-good whole.
Reel Steel hits DVD and Blu-Ray Jan. 24th. I recommend it.