As someone pointed out on Twitter last week, we got the Alpha last week, now we get the Omega in the form of AXL, a kids’ movie about the eternal relationship between man and his best friend: A killer robot dog.
Directed by Oliver Daly and produced by Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer, this film has been buried from start to finish by its studio, the deeply-in-shit Global Road, as its advertising budget seemed limited to a Dude Perfect video and it didn’t screen for critics before it hit theaters yesterday. That’s always somewhat of a bad sign, but stranger things have happened, right? Well, AXL isn’t as good as Alpha, that’s for sure, and Alpha wasn’t even that good in the first place, but this robot-dog movie has its own little mediocre niche to fill, and despite being pretty shitty, it’s kind of fun.
Dreamed up by a scruples-lacking defense contractor (Dominic Rains), A-X-L (which is an acronym for Attack, Exploration, Logistics, or what Mark Zuckerberg thinks dogs are for) is a dog-like robot which is meant to help soldiers on the battlefield by doing all the things a traditional war dog does without all the “feeding and shitting” that real dogs do. Their one prototype, who doesn’t have a designation beyond that small abbreviation, escapes from their facility somehow (it’s never really quite stated how, or if it thinks for itself), and gets wounded in the process. While the robodog is hiding out in a scrapyard, it happens upon a kid named Miles (Alex Neustaedter), who has been left injured and embarrassed by a rich bully (Alex MacNicoll) who hates him for stealing his girl, Sara (Becky G). Miles from a blue-collar background, he’s got a loving father (Thomas Jane), and he loves motocross, so he’s able to repair the bot in its time of need. Together, the two will have to confront the bullies of their own worlds — for Miles, it’s the rich kid; for AXL, it’s the fucking military (who want to use him as a weapon) — all the while doing sick tricks with each other that seemed to stop being cool to kids back when Rocket Power went off the air.
So, there’s not too much thematically separating this movie from your Short Circuit or Iron Giant, but it’s done significantly worse. Our actors don’t have much charisma, save Jane, who is always a delight in these schlocky movies (weird 1922 accent not used, thank God). But that isn’t even the real issue here: The main problem with AXL is the dog itself, which is utterly fucking terrifying all throughout the film. It’s never once cute or badass, as its makers occasionally intend for it to be, but the robodog is severely hampered by Daly’s choice to blend puppetry and CGI. This is a choice I’d normally praise — practical effects are always going to be better for actors than a tennis ball on a stick being all that informs them what computer-generated critter they’ll be talking to — but the doggie is emotionless in its design, and in its lack of expressiveness, it hits all of the creepy checkmarks on the way down. The young actors do their best to try and talk around this, but any and all attempts on their parts to connect with this thing fall flatter than the Earth that AJ Styles thinks we live on.
That design is pretty close to a film-killing flaw, but I found myself enjoying how terrible it looked at a certain point, in that it reminded me of the type of cheap ’90s entertainments I used to come across on The Disney Channel or on the rack at Blockbuster. There’s something charming in how ugly the whole thing is (most of the effects in those movies were terrifying as well — I remember being scared shitless by how horribly ugly the SFX were in something like Star Kid, which was as fucked up repulsive as anything you’d see in modern horror), and how throwback-y the script is with what it thinks kids want to see on the big screen: They want motocross, of course, and they want some mild action, and the only thing missing is the requisite joke about the robodog pissing gasoline on something when he’s frustrated. It’s all a very earnest attempt at making the kind of schlock bored kids eat up when they’re presented with entertainment, and that’s pretty fun.
So, AXL isn’t a particularly good movie, or a notable one outside of the fact that it might be the last film from what was supposed to be a powerhouse studio, but it’s one that I found very difficult to hate, and I think it’ll have an extended life scaring children shitless whose bored folks plucked it out of the Redbox on the way out of Wal-Mart.
Featured image by Tony Rivetti Jr. via Global Road.