Outside of Star Wars, this is the film I grew up on, and loved with a severe passion. I never owned the VHS as a child. It was only by renting it incessantly over many, many years that I ever got to see it after the theatres. My dad actually took me to see this in 1986 at the discount theatre that actually closed down about a decade ago, much to my dismay. There were countless wonderful memories at that theatre in addition to the video arcade across the way in that mall. In the late 90s, I found a Canadian website selling new VHS tapes of the movie featuring the American version, and with the help of a friend, I was able to purchase it. I prized this tape, and you couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I happened upon a DVD release of it years later. So, what is it about this movie that has kept it a beloved favorite of mine for more than a quarter of a century? Read on and find out!
It is the year 2005, and the battle between the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, has escalated all the way to their home planet of Cybertron, which the Decepticons have reclaimed. The Autobots secretly plan to retake the planet from secret outposts, but the Decepticons move to thwart their efforts by waging a full-on assault against Autobot City on Earth. Here, a new generation of heroic Autobots stand ready to fight including the young, impulsive Hot Rod, the consummate soldier Ultra Magnus, the elderly war veteran Kup, the compassionate Arcee, the triple changing Springer, and many more. However, a greater threat to them all looms closer in the form of the evil entity known as Unicron, who’s ready to consume anything that stands in its way, but the only thing that he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. Along the way, lives are lost, battles are fought, an old enemy is re-forged by Unicron, and a new Autobot leader is born as another dies.
This movie really was the pinnacle of any six year’s old life at the time. You had a big, epic story with huge consequences, and the most climactic final confrontation between the heroic Optimus Prime and the vile Megatron. To me, this was bigger than Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, bigger than anything else on the planet! Prime was the ultimate John Wayne style hero, always sticking to his principles and morality, but able to throw down with the best of them. Megatron was the most deceitful, ruthless villain around, and after two seasons of the television series, you finally got to see them collide like never before. The movie was even marketed as showcasing their final battle, and it did not disappoint. It starts with Prime proclaiming that, “Megatron must be stopped. No matter the cost,” and then, proceeds to plow down and blast away a whole slew of Decepticons. It firmly establishes that Optimus is a real bad ass worth rooting for. This is the big hero of the Autobots, and anyone who gets in his way has got a real problem. The fight between Megatron and Prime is them putting it all out on the line, and it couldn’t be more climactic. It’s also an awesome looking sequence with great dramatic angles, and an awesome Stan Bush song backing it up. Then, it ends on a wholly unexpected note. The filmmakers really hit you for a big one in more ways than one. Optimus Prime dies. However, it happens within the first third of the film creating a sense of ultimate peril for everyone. If Optimus Prime can perish in this movie, then, nobody at all is safe, and even before this, the Deceptions slaughter an entire ship of Autobots in fairly graphic fashion. This film tells you just about from the start that it’s taking no prisoners, and the danger is real and imminent. This creates huge odds for the surviving Autobots to overcome, especially in the face of Unicron.
With so many of the classic characters dying, the movie introduces us to a group of new Autobots which hooked me in immediately. I loved Hot Rod, and was really behind him all the way through the story. Judd Nelson did a great job voicing him giving the young, brash Autobot a lot of charm, charisma, energy, and humor. Yet, where it counted, Hot Rod was heroic, and did show some depth to really rise up and come into his own. The weathered and seasoned warrior Kup is given great texture by Lionel Stander making him a fun character with his incessant war stories, but also striking a good chemistry with Nelson’s Hot Rod. The older mentor and the young hero is nothing new, but here, it feels like these two were friends more than teacher and student, which makes for a fun pairing.
Springer feels like a solid lieutenant in the Autobot ranks as the reliable, capable soldier, and has strong characterization with dashes of levity. And you can say what you will about Ultra Magnus. He’s certainly not the inspiring leader that Optimus was, but he was voiced by the late, great Robert Stack. Being an old school Unsolved Mysteries fan, I could never slight Mr. Stack’s performance. He does give Ultra Magnus some humanity and a steady confidence, but I think, by design, the filmmakers didn’t want Magnus living up to Optimus’ stature. This becomes apparent by the film’s end.
The villains are given some new life with two impressive names added to the cast. First, there is Leonard Nimoy voicing Galvatron in amazing fashion giving the new Deception leader an even more vicious streak than he had as Megatron. After his brutal fight with Optimus Prime, Megatron is recreated as this far more powerful Galvatron, and that injects a far more menacing and cutthroat villain into the story. Nimoy pushed his voice into a deeper, more guttural place for this performance, and it really served the character beautifully. Galvatron is Megatron pushed to the next level, and I really love that idea. However, the real major name involved here is Orson Welles as Unicron. This was actually the legendary filmmaker’s final performance. His heart attack death occurred five days after finishing this voice work. Reportedly, Welles was pleased do the job stating an admiration for animated films. While Welles could be an intimidating man, I’ve seen interviews of him being very friendly, humble, and enjoyable. Still, that voice was gold, and there were not many actors who could’ve naturally given such a booming, massive presence to Unicron’s voice as Welles did.
With all these great characters, old and new, we are given endlessly quotable dialogue. Nary a scene goes by without a great line being said which became a classic amongst fans. These range from the dramatic to the comedic, and are all executed perfectly by this great voice cast. They really deserve a vast amount of credit for inhabiting the personalities of their characters, and meshing so well together. It sounds like every single one of them gave it their all, and likely had a real fun time working on this animated movie. The regular cast of voice actors maintain their usual high standards, especially Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, among others. The Dinobots are especially funny while still remaining formidable. This is some very exceptional casting and voice directing in my opinion.
What really strikes me about the movie today is how briskly paced it is. There is nary a slow point in the whole thing, and at 84 minutes long, one could hardly expect one. Surely, these days, I would’ve loved to have seen it reach a full 90 minutes because that third act really hits you before you know it. Regardless, the steady pace and rhythm of the movie creates so much excitement and fun. There is no shortage of action, and any scenes of exposition are very succinct. The regular progression of the story taking our heroes to new worlds and environments keeps it interesting. Both the planet of Junk and of the Quintessons are dangerous in their own unique ways with great visual designs. They give the film scope that was rarely offered on the television series. Everything about this movie is amped up substantially from the episodic cartoon, and the action is no exception. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie, animated or live action, jam pack this much stellar and original action into such a compact run time while still maintaining such a rich sense of character and competency in its plot. There’s so much energy pulsating through this movie it’s almost unreal, and it never becomes a mess. Screenwriter Ron Friedman did a rather admirable job on this script, and it was put into the right hands to make it a reality.
Now, granted, there’s hardly a major through-line plot for our heroes. In the most part, the Autobots are just trying to survive every new threat that surfaces in their path while Unicron sort of looms over everything in the background. The action really just pushes them along from one dire scenario to the next until they must confront Unicron. These are adventures which have the heroes proving their merit to the audience more than to each other. It’s about us learning about the characters, and coming to care about them instead of developing them at length. Transformers: The Movie doesn’t have the character growth or thematic exploration of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but for what it is meant to be, a fun and exciting animated movie for kids, I think it is rather exceptional. It doesn’t go much into heavy subject matter, save for the deaths early on, but it doesn’t treat its young audience as stupid. It’s a smartly written story that keeps it simple enough to follow, but exciting enough to keep it interesting. This is definitely a film that can be entertaining from the age of six all the way through to thirty-two.
One thing that strongly helps in that aspect is that the animation style is still amazing to my eyes today. At the time of the film’s release, it was a style and quality not previously seen by mainstream American audiences. The detail, shading, and dramatic, epic imagery created a vast cinematic visual impact. The film remained vibrant and colorful despite having some very dark moments, and could have real moments of beauty. While there are occasional animation gaffes and shots of lower grade artwork, on the whole, the artistry on display is really stunning adding a sense of edge and texture to everything never before given to the cartoon series. This feels like a major motion picture event, and in comparison to the series, you can clearly see the vast amount of time and hard work put into the visual quality of this movie.
Probably the biggest thing that kept the film alive in my mind and heart between rentals was the amazing rock soundtrack! I cherished that audio cassette for over a decade. I made the vow to myself that when the tape eventually broke, I would buy the CD immediately, and that’s exactly what happened. Most of these acts were generally unknowns like Lion, N.R.G., and Kick Axe (who were credited as Spectre General by decree of the record company), but contributed very solid songs that gave a lot of hard and heavy excitement to the film. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic was quite well known at the time. He contributed his quirky track “Dare to be Stupid,” which fit the catch-phrase referencing Junkions perfectly. Stan Bush’s tracks have probably become the biggest hits amongst fans with the driving rock rhythm of “Dare,” and the inspirational “The Touch.” The latter is a song that has come to really be able to pull me through into a stronger, more determined mindset when I’m feeling down. It pushes me back up on my feet, and it does much the same within the context of the movie highlighting the biggest standing tall moment for our main heroes. This is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and it is only enhanced further by Vince DiCola’s very dynamic, electronic style score.
The climax of Transformers: The Movie is just flat out amazing! I like the intercutting between the battle outside of Unicron as he fends off the attacks from Cybertron, and the multiple stories going on inside of him. However, it hits its great crescendo in glorious fashion when the Autobot Matrix of Leadership comes into the right hands, and signals a new era for the Autobots. The movie is filled with great, iconic moments such as this, but few as great as this. In retrospect, it’s only a shame that the movie ends so quickly after this, but I suppose, in that regard, it’s a film that leaves you wanting more. That’s rarely a bad thing, and it’s far better than overstaying its welcome or leaving itself open for any letdowns after such a great climax.
Despite the efforts of Michael Bay, this still remains the absolute best Transformers movie in existence. It features a tight, exciting, and heroic story centered on the Autobots and Decepticons themselves that is vibrant as well as genuinely funny and entertaining for the whole family. Of course, most versions contain a swear word or two that are surprising they made it into the PG rated film in 1986, but for fans, they wouldn’t want the movie any other way. This 1986 movie treats its characters with respect and integrity, and gives many of them poignant weight at their most pivotal moments. The new characters are just as exciting and colorful as the classic ones, and they give the film a real boost of energy and sense of discovery. You’re going along for the ride with them as they rise to the epic task before them. As I said, I was hooked in with Hot Rod from the start, and unlike many who saw the film as a kid, I actually didn’t cry during Optimus Prime’s death scene. It’s unheard of, I know, but I was just enjoying the living hell of this movie. At one time, I definitely would have listed this as my favorite movie of all time, and it is still among my favorites, as this review has undoubtedly shown. While the film bombed at the box office, it has gained immense popularity throughout the fan base, and remains a major high point in the franchise. All around, this is just a wildly fun movie that I will never get tired of. While the television series doesn’t hold up nearly as well, this movie feels damn near timeless to me, and I don’t believe I am alone in that feeling.
I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven. It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes. So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes. Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie. The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that. It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.
In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world. Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony. Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories. For Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs. However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man. His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent. Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen. The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.
This film showcased some potential. I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself. As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall. The action is sensational most times. There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing. There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire. The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed. Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action. Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable. More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap. The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world. Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally. However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie. Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie. It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.
I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film. I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists. The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation. He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release. You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches. However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth. The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough. These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them. Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles. He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance. However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into. I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in. I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting. You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion. While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.
The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina. She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present. The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake. I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance. It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that. It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development. Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table. Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance. I was left with a rather blank impression of the character. Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.
I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film. His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been. Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts. There’s no natural flow to it. It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up. It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless. I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias. I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before. It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out. No such moment exists in this film. The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid. There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface. It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose. He is also greatly low key. One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities. I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.
Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable. Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie. Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine. There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love. However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain. She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation. Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey. Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding. It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role. She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process. I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end. I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.
Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma. He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen. He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with. You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy. He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup. This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors. No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances. Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version. That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively. It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie. Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.
I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going. Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity. How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity. There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity. There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene. It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.
Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations. The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it. It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette. The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness. Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence. Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes. Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it. Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well. The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards. It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future. It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses. However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore. I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.
The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design. While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB. Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB. I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film. Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct. There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment. Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today. So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there. As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.
Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film. It looks very slick and smart all the way through. His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes. It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went. I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.
Everything in these worlds is smartly designed. The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world. With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations. Everything has a practical and logic design to it. Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.
However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script. I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot. The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself. We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out. We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB. We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them. We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters. They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.” That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated. While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary. The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale. I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way. The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread. The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough. Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it. Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed. Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine. So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them. It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.
There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias. No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in. They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations. This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all. Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.
I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film. The action is marvelously well done and inventive. Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action. He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography. There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film. Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up. There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass. Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself. I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion. I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one. Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.
I really liked this movie! It always seemed entertaining, but I was never sure if it was exactly for me. Turns out, it absolutely was, and I wish I had seen it in theatres for that big rousing experience. Real Steel is a heart warming story with a lot of exciting action, lovable humor, and strong emotional drama. This is a crowd pleaser, and a wonderful family oriented film.
In the near future, boxing as we know it has changed from human athletes to robotic competitors. This has left former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) down on his luck shopping his worn out bot fighter Ambush around to small time fairs and events. He’s broke with large debts hanging over his head to many people, and his con man bravado constantly gets him in over his head. However, his life is about to change when the mother of his estranged eleven year old son passes away, and her sister, Debra (Hope Davis) wants to claim fully custody of Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo). Charlie negotiates a deal with the clearly well-off Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) to take the kid for the summer with a $50,000 price tag up front while Debra and Marvin take off to Italy. Charlie uses the cash to buy a new robot, but Max will not be dumped off with Charlie’s girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) who tries to keep her late father’s boxing gym open. So, he joins Charlie out on the bot fighting circuit where they constantly come into odds with one another, but when their big time Japanese bot gets mutilated during a main event bout, they head to the junkyard to scrap together parts for a new fighter. Here, Max discovers Atom, an old sparring bot, buried under the mud, and Max dedicates himself to fixing up and championing Atom as their new fighter. Charlie doesn’t have faith that Atom is worthwhile, but eventually, their combined efforts and warming attitudes help lead them all to great success. The two reach great heights with Atom and as a family. Although, they hit many turbulent moments that tear them apart, but also, bring them closer together to forge a father-son bond that is stronger than steel.
I have to hand it to everyone involved in this movie. I don’t think it could’ve been better. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) certainly had great input from producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to create such a well balanced film. There are many elements in Real Steel that are very akin to the films they made back in the 1980s. It is very heartfelt and endearing with plenty of enjoyable, well developed characters. Listening to Levy’s audio commentary, I can’t help but to love his passion and love for what he does.
I’ll certainly get to Hugh Jackman, but I absolutely wanted to credit Dakota Goyo. This young actor makes this film work beyond expectations. It is so often that child actors grate on an audience’s nerves due to unnatural attitude or overt, sickening cuteness, but Dakota is nothing of the sort. He comes off as a sharp, intelligent, mature, and charming kid. He has vast potential, and so much of that is fleshed out here. He carries his equal weight opposite Jackman, and their chemistry is amazingly fantastic! They keep each other on their toes, demanding higher and higher standards from one another throughout the story. Max brings out the best in Charlie and so many others through his confident, ambitious, yet still youthful spirit. He does have attitude, but it works to show that Max isn’t going to back down from Charlie, who needs someone to kick some sense and maturity into him. And how Max bonds with Atom is amazingly heartfelt, like a boy bonding with his dog. Atom certainly is given that personality of a kid’s best, loyal friend, and the child-like innocence of that relationship is beautifully realized. In the hands of any lesser of a talent, the film would’ve had a fatal weak point, but Goyo truly elevates the film. He projects sympathy at key moments, and while he is a tough kid, he does have his vulnerability. He can elicit a wide range of emotions from an invested audience. I love the fact that Max is just looking for someone who will fight for him, to be needed and loved by someone so bad, and the moment he reveals that is heartbreaking and powerful.
Hugh Jackman gives Charlie Kenton an extra dimension that allows him to be likeable even when, by all rights, he shouldn’t be. Again, with any less of an actor, Charlie would’ve been despicable and obnoxious. Instead, Jackman brings a slightly sympathy to Charlie which allows him to be forgivable and redeemable. This story truly is an evolution for Charlie from a guy at rock bottom that’s entirely self-serving without a genuine, honest relationship to a father who comes to care deeply for his estranged son who wants to do all things right by him. Charlie starts out a little pathetic, but not entirely innocent of the problems that befall him. He talks a good game, but his bravado gets the better of him. He’s a man that had his taste at greatness, but the change in the fight game abruptly ended those dreams. So, he feels broken, and wants to avoid showing his feelings by masking with an arrogant, if immature demeanor. However, the more time he spends with Max, the more Charlie’s hardened swagger softens. Jackman beautifully captures those moments of Charlie’s heart and compassion breaking through the surface such as a moment where Charlie saves Max from a mudslide fall right before they discover Atom. Dakota’s performance pulls out these qualities in Jackman’s character forcing him to come to terms with his past and character flaws. Charlie becomes a better person because of Max, and Jackman plays that subtle development brilliantly. He only puts in what charm and swagger that are needed at any given moment. He finds the perfect balance between the old Charlie and the new Charlie in every scene as he journeys from one end of that spectrum to the other. Beyond all else, Hugh clearly had a fun time making this movie, and shared a lot of respect with Dakota.
The father-son relationship is the entire core of this film, and casting these two deeply talented, smart actors was the best, first step to achieving success. They were fully committed to the story and characters here. Both of their performances become painfully heartbreaking, but also immensely exciting. There is so much nuance to their performances allowing them to work off of each other, and create that charming bond which drives the whole film. I simply cannot say enough about them that you will have to experience them yourself.
Rounding out the core cast, Evangeline Lilly’s Bailey is excellent as well. Bailey tries to keep from having to sell her father’s old boxing gym, but Charlie’s debts to her make that difficult. However, Charlie has enough charm with her to slide by, but she never makes it too easy for him. Evangeline has a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and passion to inject into the movie. She plays off of Jackman exceptionally well as his love interest. The relationship is playful, intimate, and honest. Bailey is an easy going woman that you can entirely see the history and connection she shares with Charlie, and how her hope in him grows as the story builds. She is very easy to connect with, and remains strongly tethered to the heart of the film. Her visceral moments cheering on Atom during the fights are awesome, and that likely reflects the audience’s enthusiasm to see our heroes achieve glorious victory. There is just so much heart and emotion that pours out of this film, and these actors saturate it with incredible performances.
The supporting cast strongly hold the smaller areas of the film together. Hope Davis as Max’s Aunt Debra is very caring and protective of her nephew. His Uncle Marvin, played by the solid James Rebhorn, is not unappreciative of Max, but is also not ready to drop everything to be his father figure. Kevin Durand portrays the Texan Ricky with a slick, ill-favored attitude, but he’s just enough of an intimidating yet foolish character to be amusing. The smug, arrogant duo of Olga Fonda and Karl Yune as Zeus’ owner and creator, respectively, are great foils for Charlie & Max who are full of humanity and determination. These nicely textured characters, backed by solid acting talents, add a strong foundation to build these great character dynamics upon that are the substance of this film.
Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is stunningly gorgeous and powerful. The frame holds substantial weight and emotion with brilliant, beautiful lighting. The subtle movement in the more tender emotional scenes brings class and sophistication to the film. There are also many great shots that show off the scale, production quality, and depth of the film. Levy and Fiore brought a great artistic detail to the visual quality, and production designer Tom Meyer also deserves credit for creating such a visually appealing world for them to capture. The selection of locations and aesthetics of the slightly futuristic world is highly impressive and enveloping. Each scene is given importance and artistic resonance. The boxing scenes are greatly captured with coherent motion that respects the action it is capturing. Again, the film shoots for higher standards by dismissing cheap shaky cam nonsense for solid camera movement and cinematic integrity.
The robots themselves are such a delight. The personality and fun these filmmakers put into these designs are so pleasing. They are not hard edged designs like Transformers, but more marketable, vibrant, engaging designs that would bring smiles to a wide audience. This gives the film so much character and entertainment value. Every robot boxer has their own distinct identity to give each fight a certain tone. Midas is a very punked-out underground fighter bot that reflects the gritty, dirty environment he battles in. Twin Cities, a two headed bot, is a very inventive design that Charlie & Max have to be innovative in order to defeat. Zeus is effectively intimidating with his bulk, strength, and square jawed design. Charlie’s first bot, Ambush, is like an old faded out car that once had its day, but is far from top of the line now. Noisy Boy, the former big time bot Charlie buys on the black market, is sharply designed with a Samurai motif. He’s very showy with sleek lines and bright LED colored lights, but Atom is the real marvel. He feels like the underdog as he’s not big and bulky or particularly showy, but the strength of the design is how an audience can project whatever they feel into Atom’s face. The big glowing turquoise eyes are very endearing, and the welding scars on its screened face work as a makeshift smile and nose. He’s a little wounded, beat up, but he has an innocent, youthful quality to him. This is also due to the sound design of Atom’s little murmurs and wails. He’s a wonderful creation that embodies the heart and determination of the story, and with his shadow mode, he reflects upon the qualities of Charlie and Max repeatedly.
The effects of Real Steel took a very smart approach by building and using practical robots for many purposes, and interchanging them with digital effects. This ultimately allowed for far more photo-realistic fighting robots that interact with their surroundings seamlessly. They used motion capture on real boxers for all of these fights to give the robots realistic movement and unique personalities. These performers were supervised by the great and legendary Sugar Ray Leonard. Learning that Levy had all these great collaborators on this film, including Leonard, Spielberg, and Zemeckis, that makes it easy to see how Shawn Levy was able to create such a powerful and impressive film. He had the right studio backing him up, and a wide array of fantastic, top line talents guiding the creative process along. These visual effects are excellent standard bearers, and many filmmakers should look to the methods and skills used in Real Steel for future effects-filled features.
Now, I surely must have missed large chunks in the evolution of Danny Elfman’s film composer career. While I know him best from films like Batman, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, I never knew he was capable of something of this caliber. Director Shawn Levy said that the list of composers who could do what Elfman did is extremely short. He creates a wide range of depth to the score between the guitar strumming ambience to the rousing big fight action cues. This entirely compliments the overall emotional landscape of the movie from the visuals to the acting and beyond. How Levy orchestrates the timing of these cues is very original as he delays the punctuation of these moments. I feel this allows the emotional beats to be more raw and tender which only enhances them further. This is really the sign of a great filmmaker with a strong, clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and he got it.
The story itself is not new, but as is the real skill, it’s how effective and fresh a filmmaker can make a well treaded story which makes it special. I believe that was successfully achieved here. Emotions are finely crafted around the character relationships and internal personalities. And where a normal boxing movie is more violent and brutal, the robot boxing allows for the fights to be fun, exciting, and enjoyable. There’s so much adrenalin pumping action that it is bound to please almost any audience. The film always seems to find character building moments in its plot developments. I also love how the film doesn’t start with a boat load of exposition. It allows an audience to ease into the story and characters, and only later, after they have been comfortably established does the history of robot boxing and Charlie’s own boxing career get detailed. It shows what the true focus is here – the characters, and that it is its greatest strength.
Overall, Real Steel is a real winner! I was thoroughly entertained and surprised by this movie over and over again. The climactic fight between Atom and Zeus is stellar, genius stuff! While the film clearly had templates of other boxing and sports movies to follow, the advantage of the robots and technology allows for an unexpected turn during the final round that gives Charlie his moment to shine and gain redemption for his boxing career. Everything is beautifully crafted wrapped with heart, humor, and humanity. There really is so much I can say, but it’s not easy to articulate it. Sometimes, you just have to experience it to comprehend the depth and excellence of a film. To everyone involved in the making of Real Steel, you have my deepest respect and highest praise! I loved it!