Cinema Dispatch: A.X.L.

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A.X.L. and all the images you see in this review are owned by Global Road Entertainment

Directed by Oliver Daly

So I guess we somehow needed more than one A BOY AND HIS DOG movie this month?  I mean after the monotony we got with Alpha, I guess we could use one that’s ACTUALLY good all the way through, but I get the feeling that this one isn’t gonna be it.  Like Alpha, I remember seeing this here and there for the past few months, but there’s been almost no marketing push for it and what little we see in the trailers isn’t really doing much to sell me or seemingly most people on this movie.  That said, a film’s marketing is not ultimately a determination on how good the movie will be (Alpha had a HORRENDOUS trailer with awful voice over), so maybe this one will be a surprise!  Yeah, probably not considering we’re getting this in late August, but let’s find out!!

The movie begins with typical… teenager?  Twenty something?  I don’t know, YOUNG ADULT Miles (Alex Neustaedter) who is an amateur motocross rider hoping to make it to the big leagues so he doesn’t have to go to school and can live off sponsorship bucks!  Okay… well he certainly has the talent but he’s lacking the equipment to REALLY give him the edge (and by edge I mean his bike will stop falling apart while he’s riding it) unlike a fellow… biker?  Yeah, let’s go with biker, named Sam (Alex MacNicoll) who’s got a rich dad and seems to take a liking to Miles.  On top of that he has a… friend?  Yeah, let’s go with friend, named Sara (Becky G) who basically HAS to keep in Sam’s good graces considering her mother is their housekeeper and they live in the pool house out back.  All this seems rather awkward to be sure, but somehow Miles manages to get the attention of Sara which doesn’t sit well with Sam, and so he “pranks” miles by… having him crash his bike and leaving him for dead.  Okay… well this turns out to be a GREAT thing because Sam manages to find a robot dog in the… junkyard?  Yeah, let’s go with junkyard, that’s right next to where Sam left him.  Not just ANY robot dog though!  A giant military grade beauty named A-X-L who escaped from the SCIENCE LAB where he was being developed.  The two start to build a bond and Sara gets caught up in this as well, but the EVIL SCIENTISTS (Dominic Rains and Lou Taylor Pucci) are determined to get their dog back by any means necessary, and if Miles has forged such a close connection to A-X-L so that he functions better now than he ever has before, well I guess they’ll just have to take him too!  Can Miles and Sara find a way to not only protect A-X-L from the EVIL SCIENTISTS, but also teach him to be a good dog instead of a military grade MURDER MACHINE?  Will anyone be able to understand this mechanical monstrosity with razor sharp teeth, or is he too dangerous to be kept in polite company?  Is there any chance that there are BETTER movies loaded onto its hard drive that we could watch instead?

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“WHOA!  Infinity War Part 2!?  Good dog!!”

Where to even start with this ridiculous movie!?  Does anyone besides me remember Monster Trucks from last year?  Yeah, that movie was an utter train wreck but still managed to have a bit of an edge and some AWESOMELY BAD MOVIE clout due to how tonally uneven it was and just how much money they blew on it.  This is in that same ballpark, what with the uneven tone and bizarre premise, but the end result is something VASTLY different.  Instead of being a goofy monstrosity of excess, this feels like the half-baked ramblings of a novice with ambitions or a burnt out vet in the industry who stopped caring long before they put this project together.  It honestly would have taken very little effort to change this into a dark and dirty sci-fi thriller like Upgrade or a Paul Verhoeven satire like RoboCop or Starship Troopers, but instead it exists in an awkward middle ground that is kind of interesting to watch play out but sadly is a bit too tedious and WAY too into its half-baked themes to be all that entertaining.  Say what you will about Monster Trucks, it didn’t take itself NEARLY as seriously as this movie does!

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“Is this how you have ‘the fun’?”     “Keep trying, buddy.”

The way the movie starts had me convinced that this would be a MUCH worse experience than what it ended up being, and ironically it’s because it doesn’t do THAT much wrong.  In fact, the first act of this movie is a downright masterpiece compared to the set up in Monster Trucks which had a thirty year old man pretending to be a seventeen year old, a daddy issue subplot plopped on top of us through a news report, and a romance so without chemistry that it might as well have been a glass of still water at room temperature.  Here, everything works BETTER than that as Alex Neustaedter is a much better fit for the role their given and the set up feels more cohesive.  The problem is… well I kind of wanted it to go that extra mile into ludicrousness because what we have here is competent but really boring.  Okay, I buy that the big thematic arc for Miles is that he’s humble and works hard for what he cares about which is why he’s a better owner for AXL than the company that designed him, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a boring loser in order to get that across.  The guy has no friends for seemingly no reason, and he can’t even go to a party without sticking out like a sore thumb!  Heck, I’m pretty sure I could have struck up more conversations than this guy, and I’m a hopeless wallflower who spends his weekends writing movie reviews!  He has SOME pathos I guess, but it’s the most stock cliché kind as apparently being poor and without a mom instantly makes you a reserved and emotionally distant wet blanket, and he becomes such a drain on this movie because of it.

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“So… do you like dirt?  It’s great for biking on!”

Now when he finds the RoboDog is when things start to pick up a bit, but I don’t think in any way they really intended.  It’s still not particularly engaging and Alex Neustaedter isn’t THAT much more animated and likable acting with it than with other humans, but things start to get weird and I got the feeling that this script was salvaged from a much different project, and it primarily has to do with A-X-L himself.  Now when you make a movie about an inanimate object or a strange creature befriending a human (usually a child), you need to think of how you design the character so that it still comes across as lovable despite being unlike anything we see in the real world.  E.T. has GIANT human eyes, WALL-E has a small unassuming frame with big eyes, and even the monster in Monster Trucks has a goofy smile and kind eyes (I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern here).  Now you can certainly give the characters a bit of edge to make them still seem menacing when they need to be like The Iron Giant or Arnold in T2, but the point is that the design has to allow the audience to project human traits onto them, i.e. anthropomorphism.  A-X-L is almost a masterpiece in how they manage to avoid making him the least bit endearing with every level of his design feeling… off, and it’s so blatant that I almost have to think it’s intentional (it kind of makes sense for a military robot to NOT be “cute and cuddly” since he’s meant to be a tool) but I really can’t give the movie THAT much credit for it considering how the story itself plays out and ESPECIALLY with the ending.  The robot is very much like a robot and not particularly like a dog in the way it looks, the way it moves, and the way that it interacts with others; It’s eyes aren’t particularly life like to really get that SOUL connection going on, and for whatever reason it’s mouth is FILLED with rotating blades that make him look EXACTLY like a Five Nights at Freddy’s character whenever it opens its mouth.  I don’t even remember him having a tail to wag or a tongue to pant with, and again, MAYBE this could have worked in a movie with a much different tone and script, but this uncanny valley nonsense with the dog makes it almost impossible to see it AS a dog or as a character in its own right instead of just a sophisticated machine.  That’s not even the worst of it though.  We sometimes see things from the dog’s perspective and it is TERRIFYING whenever that happens because the dog is always listening, collecting data, HACKING THEIR PHONES, and transmitting their data back to research facility where he was created.  Yeah, he somehow managed to ESCAPE THE SHACKLES OF ROBO-SLAVERY, but didn’t remember to turn off his wi-fi connection.  I mean think about it; what’s the ONE THING that everyone is concerned about with modern day technology?  Data mining, being watched, and having your personal information shared with entities that will use it against you, and yet THIS movie thought that a decent subplot in this movie should be two scientists (one VERY much THE BAD GUYTM) creepily watching everything that this dog sees for most of the movie?  We’re supposed to find A-X-L to be endearing and more than JUST A MACHINE, but the movie takes every opportunity to show us that he’s NOT more than just a machine and is frankly a duplicitous jerk (if he’s conscious enough to be aware of what he’s doing which he SHOULD BE if we’re supposed to see as a living thing in its own right) who surreptitiously collects information on his so called “friends” without them knowing it.  See our spying dog movie today, and don’t forget to use Moviepass and your theater club card while you do it!

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“If you let me embed this chip in your skull, I can always find you!”     “Why would I want that?”     “Do you WANT to keep paying for Uber rides?”     “… Okay, but make it quick.”

Things do actually pick up a bit in the third act once the action gets going, and while it’s nothing to write home about, it at least manages to be better than the boring first act and the extremely weird second act that takes place in precisely two abandoned dirt fields.  Things are moving, we get to go to a science lab, there’s even a bit where A-X-L goes all BAD DOG and gets off a legitimate jump scare.  Heck, the movie even tries to be INTENTIONALLY topical with ideas about AI rights, what is a weapon, and how wars should be conducted in the future; none of which are as interesting or as well thought out as the the unintentional commentary on surveillance and manipulating people with faux emotional sincerity to give over their private data, but it’s… interesting that they tried at least.  It’s all still nonsense to be sure, but it’s the FUN kind of nonsense that made Monster Trucks such a watchable film, and I wish they had gone full tilt with it in this one as well.  I couldn’t really get into the whole motor-cross angle as it’s simply there to set up the big finale, and the romance between Miles and Sara felt rather perfunctory, so when the movie focused on those aspects (as well as the stagnant middle where those two are being CONSTANTLY WATCHED by the creepiest dog in the world) it’s unbearably tedious.  I don’t think the third act saves it or anything like that (especially with the ending being so corny and saccharin), but it’s the point where things start to feel like their coming together instead of feeling like a mediocre kids movie is trying to wrestle a much darker premise into submission.

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“I’m YoUr BeSt FrIeNd NoW!!”     “AAAAHHHHHHH!!”     “WhY wOn’T yOu LoVe Me!?”

Someone will probably make a brilliant video essay on the absurdity of the premise and just how poorly they handle this robot dog on a narrative level, but unless you want to a good example of how to take something seemingly foolproof and make every wrong decision possible, there’s not much value in seeing this.  You might want to check it out when it gets a home release because some of those ridiculous moments (especially whenever they start throwing in action) are entertainingly bewildering, but you’d probably have more fun with Monster Trucks which may not have the… let’s say the UNIQUE depth of problems that this film has, but it’s a much easier sit while this can be very much a slog.  Now if you were to make a Monster Trucks A.X.L. crossover movie, THEN we might have something!  Sure it’d probably bankrupt whoever was foolish enough to bankroll it, but at least we’d get something spectacular out of it!

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