Real Steel: 5 (out of 10)

Robots! Punching! Whoo!

I kindof wanted that to be my entire review for Real Steel - three words and a score. But it doesn't quite fit.

Real Steel is a mix of three genres - the up-and-coming-scrappy-fighter boxing/martial-arts movie, the (surprisingly small) robot combat fest, and the father-learns-to-fight-for-his-estranged-son tear jerker. It mixes these genres surprisingly well, and while all of them are a little thin, all receive adequate attention from the director and actors. I came for the second genre, and was worried that the other two would annoy me; but no, my annoyance came from other quarters.

My first gripe came before the movie - why was this not titled Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots? Yes, this would have focused more heavily on the robot fighting; but that's clearly what I was there for, anyway. But I suppose that this had to be left out so that the other two genres could be alluded to in the title. Aah, well.

While the fight scenes were, for the most part, well-done and fun to watch, I had some major problems with the combat itself. Part of what makes martial-arts movies work is the knowledge that we are watching a sport, and these sports have rules. Early on, the fights were underground affairs, unsanctioned fights to the death, and the relative lack of consistent rules made some sense; weapons may vary, weight classes don't really exist, and if one side cheats a little bit, hey, them's the breaks! But later, when we we're in the Big Leagues, we see the bad-guy bot hitting the good-guy bot as he's getting up from a knock-down - and that's okay? Then why wasn't that happening all the time? And why does Zeus get pistons, anyway? It just felt inconsistent, and that took away from the up-and-coming-fighter storyline.

(Along these same lines - what exactly makes one robot dramatically better than another? I wish that this had been explained in some way other than "heart". The concept of weight classes would have helped here.)

Finally, while my biggest gripe might be considered a bit esoteric, hear me out: the user interfaces for the robots were inconsistent and, for the most part, outright bad. There are four families of controls shown:

  1. Large sit-down control pods with multiple controlling individuals. These are used by the Rich Bad Guys, and we don't really learn much about them. Still, they seem potentially useful.

  2. Keyboard/Wii-U controller - a large touchscreen with extra buttons/control sticks on the side, used by a single individual. This was used early in the movie by the Good Guys, and seemed plausible to me.

  3. Voice-based technology - the operator yells out commands into a microphone, mostly involving combat macros (left-right-uppercut). This works very poorly, but it's the primary combat system for most of the movie.

  4. Mimic technology - the bot mirrors the actions of its controller. This is apparently obsolete technology, probably because it's absurdly dangerous. It's also the key to the movie.

The movie shows that combat effectiveness improves as we move along this chart. There may be a place for all of these technologies in the overall setup, sure; but for a primary interface for one-on-one combat, I'd rather use a controller than a Kinect or a microphone. Me, I see the technologies as growing more and more imprecise, at least if the robots are human-controlled. (This changes if the fights are primarily controlled by AIs, in which case we're really getting into robot dog fighting instead... but I digress.)

A few shorter notes:

  • As a near-future science fiction movie, not much had really changed except the introduction of combat robots, the loss of other martial arts as public spectacles, more wind farms, and the introduction of large junkyards with big pits. This was disconcertingly boring.

  • $50k buys you a combat robot? That's really cheap - or at least it seems to be until you realize that money is never really discussed outside of robot fighting circles.

  • I wouldn't want to be standing next to several tons of fighting robot. Apparently, this doesn't bother anybody in the Near Future.

  • Why didn't Wolverine use his claws? That would have shown 'em!

  • While I was happy with Hugh Jackman's acting overall, I really think that his character started out as too stupid. I suppose it was good for the character arc, but his intensity was foolish.

  • The movie was really aimed at younger kids - 8-12 year-old boys, I'd say - but the language skewed it up into PG-13 territory. (No, the violence probably didn't, because the MPAA is silly.) I found this odd.

  • The product placement made me laugh, but none more so than the HP ads throughout. Oh, HP, you're so doomed!

Anyway - it was fine. I had a good time. But it was not a great movie.

Rating: 5/10 (** 1/4 out of 4)

Trailer Watch - the Coming Attractions were pretty much terrible. We got a Steven Spielberg wartime tear-jerker with War Horse, which comes out at Christmas-time and I haven't heard of before. They showed the John Carter of Mars trailer again, which is growing on me (but not enough for me to suspect it'll be a watchable movie in the end). Arthur Christmas continues to look completely uninteresting, even if it is from Aardman. And Johnny English 2 was possibly the worst trailer I've seen since The Country Bear Jamboree - 80s kid comedy sensibilities don't play well with this decade nor with Rowan Atkinson. They were definitely skewing young.