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?)
Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.