Thursday, October 06, 2011

Real Steel

Keep It Down

I wonder if robotics will advance to a stage where in the near future, boxing as a sport will be more gladiatorial and violent, with robots taking the place of human combatants in the ring allowing for fancier finishing moves since no blood nor guts get spilled, other than wires and motor oil. That's the future proposed in Real Steel, where an industry of mainstream, competitive games have room to spawn its own underground and a more kid friendly funfair version, with once famous robots and their owners/trainers/engineers from the big leagues can retire to and make a living off past reputations.

Real Steel is a science fiction fantasy piece that imagines a world in future where all that is possible, where humans take control of giant robots to do battle on their behalf in the boxing ring. But those looking for robot fight after robot fight might be better off with watching the Transformers trilogy from start to end, since you only get a handful of robot battles, with the bulk being montaged away in the midsection and the final fight even, which leaves behind an aftertaste of being short changed on the entertainment front, since we're like the spectators on screen, ready to see some hard hitting action from the get go.

Instead this film takes on a more human dimension, which is rather formulaic if you strip away the robot and machine component. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, an ex-boxer turned robot gladiator who travels from arena to arena with his machine to fight the odd match for money, with little luck since his limited funding means a pile of debt and little else to spruce up his robot with any upgrades. To compound the problem, he gets to hook up with his 11 year old son Max (Dakota Goyo) he never knew, and forms a testy relationship fueled by stubbornness from both parties, which you know will turn for the better with their discovery of Atom, a sparse sparring robot they found in a junkyard.

It plays on the human themes of courage and never giving up when in pursuit of something, which of course gets translated via Atom in its many fights in the ring, designed to take plenty of hits, yet always having something extra within itself to stand up and continuing doing what it's meant to do. Through the inanimate object both father and son start to bond - Max being the convenient kid tinkerer of parts fueled by his belief and idealism, and Charlie bringing experience in fighting to the table, both becoming partners as they take on whatever gigs that come their way, until an outburst by Max meant a shot at the world title against the incumbent champion Zeus, funded by what seemed to be Russian money and Japanese expertise, a plot development you'll see coming very expectedly.

Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo share a wonderful chemistry together that worked wonders for the film, and especially Dakota for his ability to come off quite naturally without being in awe of his more illustrious co-star. Jackman continues to build his filmography with appealing, alpha-male type characters that never cease to put a wrong foot in, having the honour of being trained by the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard to prepare for his role as a boxer. Evangeline Lily plays Charlie's girlfriend and the daughter of Charlie's trainer in his days of being a boxer, and Anthony Mackie was severely under-utilized as a bout organizer and punter. Subplots involving a custody battle, and gangsters to whom Charlie owed money to were quite unnecessary, if not to pause the film a little to fill in the space between the robot fights.

The designs of the robots were definitely the highlight of the film, with names mirroring the ability the robots possess, and the animatronics were top notch naturally, with motion capture employed to detail the bouts. Plenty of thought went into the mechanics of the machines, from wireless control panels to components unique to each robot thanks to cannibalizing of others. Unique to Atom is its shadowing ability, since its built as a sparring bot, heavy set to allow for plenty of punishment, and like a sparring partner can mirror one's exact movements, which presents an angle of argument that machines that have that human touch, is probably blessed with the best of both worlds. I won't be surprised if Atom will get inducted into the annals of great cinematic robots one day for its endearing exploits in Real Steel.

Artificial intelligence versus human intelligence, awareness and experience is something that recurs in each of the featured battles, and in the real world, this challenge is something that continues to intrigue researchers to one day play God and create something that can mimic our human mind and decision making close enough. From defeating world champions in chess and Jeopardy participants, no doubt the computer on board can defeat a human opponent, but as far as I'm aware this competitive advantage has not reached a more physical arena, at least not yet to the level as shown in this film, but it will be intriguing if one day we do get there.

A glaring plot point I cannot reconcile will involve the super-robot Zeus which was touted to be the best of breed with being autonomous in learning from mistakes and from its opponents in real time. Alas we don't see much of those, if at all, in the film taking effect, which makes it a severe system flaw in failure of execution, or the usual marketing talk in building up hype, which is common in the real world. Which serves to explain that while machines can perform rote functions perfectly, humans will still always have the upperhand with creativity and innovativeness almost always worked into our solutions.

But don't let that detract you from this entertaining crowd pleaser coming from director Shawn Levy who knows a thing or two about crafting broad based films that appeal, even if it does follow a repackaged formula - tell me if you don't see similarities with Sylvester Stallone's Over The Top (one of my favourite Stallone films) about a father and son, and in the competitive arena of arm wrestling - exploiting the popularity of robots in film in recent years.

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