Love ’em or hate ’em, nobody denies that Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are foremost about delivering CGI spectacle, and not engaging human drama. Director Shawn Levy apparently has a different plan in mind with his own movie about giant robots bashing one another silly, this year’s Real Steel.

An adaptation of a Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) short story, Levy’s mechanical boxer pic is being likened to that of the 1979 inspirational sports drama The Champ – less a feature-length version of the Rock’em Sock’em Robots game, which was the impression some viewers walked away with after watching the official Real Steel trailer (not us at Screen Rant, for the record. :-D).

Hero Complex says that Real Steel immediately establishes itself as something more than just an empty-headed popcorn flick in its melancholy opening scene, which takes time to introduce the sorry state of the film’s protagonist, has-been boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman). By his own admittance, Levy is quite pleased with the results, saying the sequence “shows you how much you can communicate without a word. You meet this character who is a vagabond soul. He has no emotional home. He’s not rooted. You know everything about him from that silent moment.”

Charlie eventually decides to turn matters around by constructing his own 2,000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel champion to duke it out in the ring against other robotic gladiators. Joining forces (and in the process reconnecting) with his estranged 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), the one-time fighter seeks to become the champion (both personally and professionally) he always aspired to be.

The comparisons between Real Steel and previous films that have involved robotic beings are obvious, but Levy says he took the history of the (for lack of a better term) anthropomorphized machinery genre into account while developing his own picture. As the Night at the Museum filmmaker puts it:

“For us, we were always policing the reality of what we are presenting and there is a lot of separation – we never have flush-on-flush plates – so you can always see into the robots and get a sense of the internal mechanics… The scale of them is very different than [the] Transformers; the [‘Real Steel’ robots] are human-built and human-operated.”

Combining actual, hand-constructed animatronic machines with computer-generated imagery used to bring the robots to life in Real Steel‘s boxing sequences looks to have worked well, based off the footage released so far. Besides appearing more realistic and organic to their surroundings, Levy’s metal beings can fluidly interact with their flesh-and-blood costars naturally, in a way that simply cannot be replicated via green screen creations. That matter also ties into the director’s viewing of Real Steel as a sort of futuristic NASCAR racing drama:

“NASCAR is something I brought up a lot [while making ‘Real Steel’]… If you don’t know the story of the driver — the person at the wheel — you don’t care about the sport, it’s just people driving in circles. Our fights are always anchored by the question, ‘Who do we, the audience, want to win, and why?’…

Working against Real Steel is Levy’s background (he’s more associated with broad comedies like The Pink Panther or Cheaper By the Dozen than big-budget F/X extravaganzas with emotional cores) and the fact that the movie’s basic premise reads as kind of silly on paper. Jackman is capable of being a powerhouse actor when the occasion calls for it, and can convincingly belt lines like “Bring it!” or yell in general anguish without coming off as too hammy. Whether his performance helps elevate Real Steel to become a truly memorable sci-fi story, or an attempt at one that falls flat, has yet to be seen, but there’s good reason to be hopeful.

Real Steel hits regular and IMAX screens around the U.S. on October 7th, 2011.

For more from Levy about the structure of the futuristic boxing world in Real Steel and how it was influenced by modern-day corporate commercial enterprises, read his full interview with the LA Times.