A Boy and His Bot
This is a ridiculous movie. It really is, as I suspected from my first glimpse at the first trailer, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots: The Movie. Big-ass robots controlled by people off on the sidelines make the robots fight one another. That’s it.
There’s no shocking twist. I kept thinking, Peter Weller’s head is gonna turn out to be inside one a them robots, right? Never happened. I moved on to: Okay, sure, then a boxing robot is gonna develop sentience right in front of us and start demanding robot rights and a cut of the winnings. Nuh-uh.
The robots don’t even have positronic brains or anything. They’re not robots you can fall in love with. They don’t even have the personality of a fake CGI Japanese bubble-gum girl-band member.
World Robot Boxing? Like, as a thing? Like Major League Baseball or NASCAR? I never understood why this would be popular, as this near-future world posits it is. As a sport, it has no romance, like baseball or cricket. It has no grace, like basketball. It’s literally a bloodless sport: there isn’t the remotest chance that anyone is going to incur a gory injury, like in hockey, or maybe explode in a way-cool fireball, like in Formula One.
Oh, and also, it makes no sense that the trick Our Heroes have up their sleeves — not really a spoiler! — is that their little underdog robot can mirror the moves of a human boxer, instead of being controlled by a joystick or whatever, and that this takes all their opponents by surprise. This seems like the first thing robot boxing would have done… the first thing all those suddenly out-of-work human boxers would have had fun with.
This is a ridiculous movie.
And yet, I enjoyed the hell out it.
Not just because Hugh Jackman is in it. In IMAX.
Though that doesn’t hurt.
There’s a kid, see, and his name is Max, because that’s what kids are always named in these sorts of movies. He’s 11 years old, and his dad — Hugh Jackman (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Australia) — is such an asshole that he sells the kid to the kid’s aunt, who wants to raise him after his mother dies. Oh, don’t worry! There’s no grieving or shit like that here. That would spoil the robot boxing. Dad Charlie just has to take Max for the summer for reasons so convoluted it’s not worth going in to.
But as plot conveniences go, it’s a winner. If you suspect that the summer will offer plenty of time for bonding as well as boxing… you are so smart! You’ve seen Real Steel already, haven’t you?
It works, though. Charlie is an enormous jerk, and one with really poor judgment in all aspects of his life, and doesn’t want to be a father. Max is pretty cool, though, as movie kids go. He’s precocious enough to rebuild his own boxing robot pretty much from scratch without being obnoxious about it. Actor Dakota Goyo (Thor, Resurrecting the Champ), who sounds like he is himself a fake CGI Japanese thing, is genuinely adorable and engaging onscreen. But he doesn’t really want this jerk as a father, either. Maybe they work because neither of them wants anything to do with the other and can’t wait for the summer to be over, so there’s no cloying sentiment mucking things up. Maybe it works because the notion of dudes bonding over doing mechanical stuff and then getting violent — in a neat, clean, no-mess way — with it doesn’t need to be overly elaborated upon… and isn’t.
This could so easily have been a movie about a dad and his son who build a boxcar racer for Cub Scouts, and then light it on fire in the last act.
But CGI robots are cooler. (The CGI is actually really awesome, and totally seamless, by the way. It even feels organic, insomuch as robots can be said to be organic.)
The opening scene, set at a cornpone county fair out by the Iowa arcologies whence James T. Kirk would later hail, sees Charlie doing a robot-fighting demo that reminded me of nothing so much as A.I.’s Flesh Fair. It hints at a potential dark side to this world that the film never returned to. Which is a shame. But if it had to stick to the light side, at least it did so with cheerfulness, humor, and even a sort of humility. The human stuff may be a tad cornball, but it does not get overshadowed by the robot stuff. The science fiction here serves a human story, as it always should, and so often in Hollywood doesn’t.
Also: Hugh Jackman in IMAX.