Monday, December 30, 2013

Real Steel (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Visual Effects - Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Danny Gordon Taylor, and Swen Gillberg

The opening credits of Real Steel are an elegantly beautiful, Americana-drenched Spielbergian vision of the countryside.  Alexi Murdoch's cover of the great Nick Drake song "All of My Days" plays as Charlie (Hugh Jackman) drives his truck across sunset-drenched fields, a glowing carnival reflecting in his windshield as day turns to night.

Then there are fighting robots.

Real Steel plays like a film written by someone working from a thoroughly dog-eared copy of Syd Field's Screenplay.  The beats are all there, the characters develop at the right time, and even the inevitable montage is placed in the right moment.  Real Steel perfectly follows the "ideal structure" of a sports movie.  There's nothing wrong with this structure, and when employed with a degree of sincerity and feeling, a strong film can result.  Released in the same year as Real Steel, Warrior was a surprisingly good effort that thrived in a similar structure due to strong acting and an avoidance of a cheap reliance on pathos.  But in Real Steel the structure feels phony and cloying, and without the heart of a Rudy or Hoosiers, the predictability of the genre is all too noticeable.

At times throughout Real Steel, director Shawn Levy seems to be screaming out "I'm capable of more than this nonsense!"  Levy is one of the busiest directors in Hollywood, directing nine feature films since 2000, with two more on the way next year (Night at the Museum 3 and This Is Where I Leave You).  Real Steel is his first non-comedic effort, though the film has plenty of unintentional comedy.  Levy's talent has never been particularly evident to me, as his efforts have thus far ranged from uninspired (Date Night) to unwatchable (Cheaper by the Dozen 2).  Like his comedies, the direction of Real Steel is capable, and there are some moments of real beauty.  The problem is that he just doesn't have much to work with the script, and he's not able to elevate a mediocre script into a good movie.  Levy is like the coach of an NFL team with a record of 8-8, good enough to keep his job, not good enough to make the playoffs.  Perhaps if he had better players he could make something happen, but he doesn't have enough on his own to win without great talent surrounding him.

But perhaps it's unfair to criticize the film's screenplay or direction in this blog, since I watched the film for its special effects.  On this criteria, the film succeeds wildly.  The robotics work by Jason Matthews at Legacy Effects is jaw-dropping, and the visual effects team and Shawn Levy made the wise move to use real elements in addition to computer effects.  Not only does this make the robots feel more real and less digital, but it also prevented the filmmakers from going too wild in designing the robots.  Unlike the robots in Transformers (the third film of the series was also nominated in the category), the robots in Real Steel feel like the robots we might expect to see in the not too distant future.  Some of the robots are a bit over the top, namely the champion Zeus, but for the most part the filmmakers succeeded in designing compelling robots that move with a beautiful fluidity and maintain a sense of semi-realism.  I would have agreed with the decision of the Academy to award the Oscar to the visual effects team behind Hugo, but the visual effects team behind Real Steel were well-deserving of their nomination.

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