(Cable TV, July 2012) I’m not betraying any big trade secret when I reveal that SF nerds love to slice-and-dice SF movies to find out whether they are true examples of True and Good Science-Fiction rather than cheap sci-fi knockoffs made for the rubes. Films like Real Steel are good fodder for such conversations, because while it unarguably depends on a science-fiction premise (Boxing Robots! How much more SF can you get? Plus, it’s adapted from a short story by real SF writer Richard Matheson), it’s somewhat lazy in working out the second-order implications of such a premise on the rest of the world. Real Steel is a kid’s film, mind you, and it’s far more interested in showing father and son bonding over rock’em-sock’em robot fighting than in offering a convincing portrait of the near future. While SF nerds will be disappointed to point out the flaws in the film’s chronology (which posits vast institutions build around boxing robots by 2020, which seems like a ridiculously short time) and the lack of robots in non-boxing roles, most of the film’s audience will be satisfied by the father-son drama, the fights and the superb rural scenery. (I don’t recall ever seeing that many farms and two-lane roads in a SF film.) This nostalgic attachment to a quasi-mythical Americana extends to the safe thematic concerns of the script, which blends fatherhood, populism, scraping by and punching things into a crowd-pleasing mix. It seems all very calculated, but Real Steel is successful because it’s very good at what it attempts to do: the cinematography is luminous, the soundtrack is peppy, the plot is cleanly delivered, the special effects are impressive, Hugh Jackman is charming as a hustling ex-fighter learning how to care for his son and director Shawn Levey keeps the film moving at a good pace. Only the abrupt ending, missing an epilogue, seems to miss a beat. Still, the film is all about pleasing audiences, and there’s a lesson or two to be learned here in how a movie can humanize a technological gimmick into something that even the broadest crowds can love.
(On DVD, May 2010) Richard Kelly is a filmmaker to approach with caution, because his capable instincts often get the better of his rational mind. The Box coming after Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, it’s not hard to see him tackle projects that he doesn’t have the discipline to keep under control. So it is that his latest film is, once again, an accumulation of strange and ominous portents that fail to cohere: We often see weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but our faith in whether he’ll be able to satisfyingly tie all of this together dwindles as the film slowly (very slowly) progresses. It doesn’t help that the morality lesson at the core of the premise is so mind-numbingly stupid: Richard Matheson’s short story had the grace of being, well, short: at feature-film lengths, we get far too much time to be exasperated at the characters’ lack of suspicions. It really doesn’t help that the nature of the latter moral dilemmas proposed to the characters is so arbitrary: From intriguing moral drama, The Box soon sinks into, basically, a demonstration of capricious powers beyond human ken. Characters are mystified; so are viewers. Some unsettling visions are likely to remain with viewers for a while, but the overall picture is so scattered that the pieces don’t fit together in a satisfying fashion. Compare and contrast to The Prestige, where absurdity and ominous portents didn’t prevent the picture from making complete sense in the end. But then again, Christopher Nolan is a far better writer/director than Richard Kelly: it’s unfair to compare the two. Until Kelly learns some self-discipline, we’re stuck with films like The Box –not fun enough to be entertaining and not even deep enough to be intriguing except at small doses.