Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why Real Steel Works

I caught Real Steel during its opening weekend a few weeks back, enjoyed it tremendously, and was trying like heck to get a write-up posted here, but time constraints and professional commitments conspired to keep that review out of reach juuuust long enough for it to slip off my radar until now, much to my regret. Suffice it to say, when I first saw the trailer for the robot boxing flick last summer, I had the same "WTF? Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie?" reaction I'm guessing most people did, but I was nonetheless lured into the theater by initial positive word of mouth, and in the end I was blown away by how effective and surprisingly emotional it ended up being.

When you stop and think about it, this story of a deadbeat dad, a precocious youngster, and the robot that brings them both together, really shouldn't have worked. At all. I mean, the premise alone makes it sounds like Over the Top with metal men instead of arm wrestling. But more than merely reminding us yet again why lead Hugh Jackman has legitimate acting and star chops, the film, loosely adapted from the Richard Matheson short story "Steel" (which itself previously came to the screen via an episode of The Twilight Zone in the '50s), also demonstrates the peculiar kind of magic that can happen when actual thought is put into making a movie "work" beyond just its opening weekend (are you listening, Michael Bay?)

We get some insight into how deep this thought process went in a brief interview between Brendon Connelly and Steel director Shawn Levy, whose filmography thus far -- composed almost entirely of light, disposable family fare -- prepared me not at all for the immensely satisfying moviegoing experience that would follow. Levy's dissection of how the main robot, Atom, was to be portrayed, and how that impacted the world of the film, tells me that the director is ready for something bigger and better than more Night at the Museum sequels. What lies past the break is all spoilers, so if you haven't seen Real Steel yet, just take my word and watch it first, then read on.
1. When Atom jumps into the air. 
Real Steel was never more or less based on the [Richard] Matheson story. It’s always been taking the sport that Matheson envisioned and that desperate protagonist that Matheson drew, that’s always been the case. In that regard, I think we borrow quite a lot from the Matheson story. When I came on, there was a father-son element, but it never really became gratifying. They never really came together. But the biggest new idea that I brought was that, originally, the robot boxing was always controlled by voice or a remote. 
Yet Atom had a shadow function. 
It was completely separate from his fight moves. But I thought that if the movie is about a boy who thinks that a robot is magic but eventually learns it’s his father who has something special in him, we had a way to use that shadow function in a way that is satisfying. I came up with this idea, of Charlie Kenton’s boxing background making this robot unique. I remember reading the script and saying “I know exactly what this needs” 
That fucking shot, that up-in-the-air moment where it pays off, I could give you a whole article on just that. When we were editing trailers I said “Don’t use that shot, I want that to be a surprise” but what happened was, every time people saw that shot, that was their favourite shot in the trailer. 
I shot it two ways. In one version, Atom does that move on his own. In that version of the movie, we would be confirming that Atom is magic. Some thought we should do that, but I felt that if we do that and confirm that he is magic, the movie loses its wonder and suddenly skews very young, if the robot is doing things on his own. 
2. When Atom is sitting alone by the mirror. 
Tom Meyer designed Atom. It is a genius design. 
The scene where Atom is sitting with the mirrors, which is one of my favourite scenes in the movie, if I added just one more frame to that, Atom actually moves. Some were like “Put it in!” and others were like “No! No! No!” 
The camera is moving, but you can’t quite say whether Atom is or is not looking at himself. I like that line being walked. That was a big question and subject of much debate. 
It’s essentially cinematic because there’s no words, the robot, the camera move and just Danny Elfman’s music. 
The movie we ended up editing flirts with the possibility of consciousness, and neither confirms nor refutes it.
Honestly, folks, that's what great filmmaking is all about: navigating that razor thin line between implication and explication to allow the audience themselves to share in creating something truly magical. Jump over to Bleeding Cool for the original story.

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