The most important of the changes is that Real Steel is now an avatar film. It follows on from a spate of films that came out in 2009 Gamer (2009), Surrogates (2009) and of course the mega-success of James Camerons Avatar (2009) all about humans inhabiting bodies that they move via telepresent remote control. Like Avatar in particular, Real Steel seems to have been conceived and indeed changed over the Richard Matheson story in order to make it into a vehicle for performance capture visual effects. (There are no robots that work by remote control in the original short story or the Twilight Zone episode). This is no particular surprise as Real Steel is executive produced by Robert Zemeckis who has had a good deal of success in recent years with productions based on performance capture animation see directorial efforts such as The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009), as well as Zemeckis-produced efforts like Monster House (2006) and Mars Needs Moms (2011).
In truth though, Real Steel owes itself to a far older form of story than either Avatar or the original Richard Matheson short story. It goes all the way back to perhaps the first boxing movie ever made and raids cliches wholesale from half-a-dozen other sports genres. It is the story of the contenders comeback. The script which comes from Jeremy Leven, the writer of the great and overlooked Creator (1995) and director of one of Johnny Depps finest moments Don Juan de Marco (1995) leaves no cliche unturned. There is the ex-champ battling the bottle, debtors and a run of bad luck touring the boondocks trying to make ends meet who could only get back on his feet if he believed in himself again; there is the good-hearted girl who stands by the fallen champs side in a prickly love-hate relationship; there is the cute kid who inspires and turns the champs luck around; the big all-or-nothing climactic battle; while in almost every bout, the champs small undersized robot is almost battered into complete scrap iron but makes a miraculous move that turns the match around. Even the photography seeks to tap cinematic American heartland nostalgia by quoting winsome Midwest landscapes and sunsets.
Real Steel is directed by Shawn Levy, a director who has yet to make a single film I have liked see Big Fat Liar (2002), Cheaper By the Dozen (2003), Just Married (2003), Night at the Museum (2006), The Pink Panther (2006), Night at the Museum 2 (2009), Date Night (2010), The Internship (2013), This is Where I Leave You (2014) and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014), as well as produced The Watch (2012) and Arrival (2016) but I have to give him his due here. For all that you can predict every move that Real Steel makes, you cannot deny that it is slickly put together and works upon all the emotional cues and triumphal surges that the filmmakers want you to. It is a film designed entirely as mainstream entertainment and works well at exactly that. The robots, which are motion capture animated from real boxers as choreographed by Sugar Ray Leonard, steal the show and contain some top-notch work from the effects department. The cast all do capably in very undemanding roles but everybody gets rings run around them by the kid, newcomer Dakota Goyo, one of the brightest and most enthusiastic child performers to appear on screen in ages. Even star Hugh Jackman is frequently left nonplussed and playing second fiddle to the kid.
Ultimately, Real Steel is a film that has no greater ambitions than being entertainment than can be liked and understood by everybody. It lives in one of those futures where apart from some transparent digital display radios and dashboard consoles there appear to be no other technological and social advances other than the central one required by the premise. The film never specifies a date but we assume it is sometime in the 2020s (the 43 year-old Hugh Jackman is said to have had his first bout in 2007, which we assume would be a point when he would have been around the age of 20). Elsewhere though the vehicles and clothing styles are all contemporary it is disappointing that the film has made no more effort to assume any changes than that. What will surely date Real Steel well and truly by the time the real 2020s roll around however is the blatant product placements for contemporary brand names such as Sprint, ESPN, Bing and Dr Pepper.
Another aspect of the film that bugged me was the constant ambiguous suggestion of anthropomorphism the suggestion that Atom understands more than it does, has genuine feelings and most absurdly how the scars that it collects across its visor during the course of combat eventually come to resemble facial features. Real Steel is not a film that needs something like this it takes it close to the realm of mawkish cute robot films such as Short Circuit (1986) and Bicentennial Man (1999). It is akin to having a film where a kid wins a videogame tournament on his PC or Xbox against incredible odds and the film then has to suggest that the computer or Xbox was alive all along.
Richard Mathesons other genre works include:- The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) based on his own novel, Roger Cormans Edgar Allan Poe adaptations The House of Usher/The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963), the Jules Verne adaptation Master of the World (1961), the occult film Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn (1961), the Corman-produced morticians comedy The Comedy of Terrors (1963), The Last Man on Earth (1964) based on his novel I Am Legend (1954) concerning a world taken over by vampires, the Hammer psycho-thriller The Fanatic/Die, Die, My Darling (1965), the classic Hammer occult film The Devil Rides Out/The Devils Bride (1968), the historical biopic De Sade (1969), Steven Spielbergs first film Duel (1971), The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) tv movies, the haunted house film The Legend of Hell House (1973) from his novel, the tv adaptation of Dracula (1974), the tv movies Scream of the Wolf (1974), The Stranger Within (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Dead of Night (1977) and The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977), the tv adaptation of Ray Bradburys The Martian Chronicles (1980), the time travel romance Somewhere in Time (1980) from his own novel, Jaws 3-D (1983), Twilight Zone The Movie (1983), and numerous classic episodes of The Twilight Zone, Thriller and Star Trek. Works based on his novels are The Omega Man (1971) from his I Am Legend, the afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come (1998), the fine ghost story Stir of Echoes (1999), I Am Legend (2007) and The Box (2009).
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Dakota Goyo) and Best Special Effects at this sites Best of 2011 Awards).