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Saturday, August 25, 2018

A.X.L.

A.X.L. is the name of a robotic dog developed by an arms company for the U.S. military.  It has hidden guns and cannons, looks kind of like a canine variation of those robot skeletons from the Terminator movies, has knives for teeth, a set of tiny whirling saw blades inside of its mouth, and is designed to kill on command.  What writer-director Oliver Daly was thinking making this thing the hero of a family adventure movie, I have no idea. 

The robot dog is creepy and unlikable.  I don't remember the last time I have been so repelled by a special effect that I was supposed to warm up to.  It has an unnatural way of moving, but that just might be the unconvincing and stiff puppet that is used for the close up shots. (It's movements are smooth and fluid when C.G. is used, creating a strange disconnect.) I never did warm up to A.X.L., because the movie is constantly changing tones.  Sometimes, it wants the dog to be playful and fun, such as when it plays fetch with its new human friends.  Other times, its normally blue glowing eyes turn red, and it starts acting like the villain in a slasher movie, stalking its victims, and suddenly jumping into frame, barking fiercely.  The movie can also never focus on what it wants to be about.  It starts out as an underdog sports movie, where a young kid just wants to race.  Then he discovers A.X.L. (which we learn stands for Attack Exploration and Logistics), and the movie turns into a bizarre mix of Short Circuit, Michael Bay's Transformers franchise, The Iron Giant and The Terminator, as the boy and his new girlfriend try to protect their robot friend from the scientist who made him.

A.X.L. is the creation of an unethical scientist named Andric Craine (Dominic Rains), who hopes to mass produce the robot dogs for combat purposes.  It escapes from the lab, and eventually encounters our young hero Miles (Alex Neustaedter), a young bike racer who sees no way out of his current life of helping out his dad (Thomas Jane) at his auto garage.  Miles thinks racing is all he has, and that there is no other future for him.  His dad disagrees, but since the movie forgets to build the father-son relationship beyond that, that's all we get.  Miles comes across A.X.L. after he's been stranded in the desert by the local jerk, Sam (Alex MacNicoll).  The robot-dog initially tries to kill Miles, but when the kid sees that he's been damaged (it has mysterious bullet holes in the side of its metallic body), he fixes A.X.L. up, and they become best friends.  They race each other, the dog helps out the kid's financial problems with its ability to hack into ATM machines, and the dog even helps Miles win the affections of the lovely Sara (Becky G), who has the Megan Fox role of looking beautiful, wearing revealing clothes at all times, and falls in love with Miles simply because he's the main character.

From there, the movie basically goes nowhere.  Miles and Sara try to figure out what to do with A.X.L., while the evil Andric Craine watches the progress of his invention from monitors back in his lab, ominously saying "Let's see how this plays out" over and over.  We never get that all-important sense that the boy and the machine are building a lasting friendship that is so important in a movie like this.  Probably because the dog itself is whatever the screenplay requires him to be.  Sometimes he's Miles' best friend, and other times, he's a soulless killer, such as when the evil Sam hurts the robo dog with his flamethrower, and the dog hunts him down and tries to murder him in front of his terrified friends.  And yes, this movie is being marketed to kids.  A.X.L. is prone to violence, will kill on command, and is frequently filmed as a terrifying object, such as when he opens his mouth and threatens to slash someone with the tiny blades that whirl away in its mouth.  The filmmakers must think there is a market for kiddie movies about a best friend who can rip your throat out if you look at it the wrong way.

This movie just made me uncomfortable.  I tried to think of a possible audience for it, and I came up empty.  A.X.L. itself is just plain unlikable, and the human characters pretty much speak in well-worn cliches.  The movie can't even think of anything interesting or appeal for its robot dog to do.  Occasionally it speaks English in a low, heavy monotone that kind of sounds like Darth Vader getting over a hangover.  Neat, I guess.  It's also supposed to be extremely intelligent, but it never exactly shows any examples of this at any time.  I really think the movie is aiming at being heartwarming, but it fails at just about any level.  There is no scene where we're allowed to fall in love with the dog.  It's just an odd, bizarre military weapon, and the movie treats it as such.  But, for some reason, it thinks we want to see more of the dog, especially when it ends on a note that suggests a sequel.  No thanks.

If you want to see a movie about a boy bonding with an animal, go see Alpha.  It's everything that A.X.L. is not.  The fact that it uses an actual animal, and not a mechanical killing machine is just one of its many merits.  Alpha is beautiful, majestic, and has a real sense of adventure.  This movie should be sold for scrap.

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