Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
Attractive college co-ed Casey (Odette Yustman) finds herself the target of the diabolical Dybbuk a spirit which has bided its time since her birth to make its nefarious presence known. Is it perhaps a manifestation of her twin brother who died in the womb all those years ago? Since dear old Dad (James Remar) is away on business -- seemingly for the entire length of the movie -- concerned Casey seeks answers from Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) a survivor of the Holocaust who may hold the key to Casey’s past. Needless to say those to whom Casey confides her fears often find themselves in danger of being offed in gruesome fashion. (Misery may love company but the Dybbuk doesn’t.) In a last-ditch effort to rid herself of the evil spirit Casey turns to Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman) who finally agrees to perform an exorcism after he too sees the signs. Aside from acting terrified (and looking good doing it) Yustman (Cloverfield) is totally at the mercy of the story which shows little mercy when it comes to providing any concrete (or even shaky) answers to the questions it raises. She’s attractive but there’s not much else to the character. As Casey’s respective boyfriend and best friend Cam Gigandet (Twilight) and Meagan Good (Saw V) are merely functionaries offering the typical mixture of skepticism and support before learning for themselves -- too late of course! -- that maybe Casey’s suspicions have validity. Adding a (misplaced?) touch of class to the proceedings are Oldman who doesn’t embarrass himself and Alexander who isn’t so fortunate. It’s also a wonder why Carla Gugino seen occasionally in flashback as Casey’s deceased mother even bothered. It’s a nothing role which might explain why the actress has no billing other than in the end credits. There’s no question that writer/director David S. Goyer has a deep love and appreciation for horror and science-fiction given his previous credits which include the scripts for Dark City Blade and The Dark Knight but as a director his work (which includes Blade: Trinity and last year’s The Invisible) leaves much to be desired. There are some good ideas here and some individual scenes are reasonably effective but the parts don’t add up to a satisfactory whole. The Unborn suffers from a botched delivery.
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.