'A.X.L.': Film Review

Deserves euthanization.

A teenager discovers a giant robotic dog in the desert in Oliver Daly's sci-fi thriller.

From Lassie onward, young people's adventures with their pooches have captured moviegoers' hearts. So in the era of A.I., it's little wonder that we now have a film about a boy and his robotic dog. Sadly, Oliver Daly's kid-oriented feature only strains hopelessly for Amblin Entertainment-style magic. The result is that A.X.L. feels in desperate need of repairs.

We're introduced to the title character via a mock promotional video for "the war dog of the future," a robotic alternative to the canines used by today's military. Except that A.X.L., which is short for "Attack, Exploration, Logistics," can do far more than merely sniff out bombs. He's a lean, mean fighting machine, and you definitely don't want to put your hand in its mouth with those sharp, whirring, metallic teeth.

Not surprisingly, the A.X.L. prototype turns out to have a few bugs despite its hefty $70 million price tag. In fact, he's escaped from the remote Southwest facility where he was created by mad scientist Andric (Dominic Rains). The giant robot dog is discovered hiding in a large crate by Miles (Alex Neustaedter, acting mostly with his cheekbones), an aspiring motocross racer whose dad (Thomas Jane) desperately wants him to at least think about going to college.

Despite the fact that A.X.L., sensing danger, nearly kills him in a frenzied chase, Alex takes a shine to the robotic creature. He tends to A.X.L.'s wounds, and it isn't long before he and the oversized metallic canine are playing just like every boy and man's best friend. They're soon joined by Sara (Becky G, acting mostly with her midriff), the sister of Alex's villainous arch rival Sam (Alex MacNicoll). While Alex and Sara are figuring out what to do with their new companion, A.X.L. helps their budding romance along by providing a light show while they're dancing. His computer hacking skills later come in handy when he's able to provide free gas and heaps of cash from an ATM.

All the while, the activities of the young lovebirds are being tracked by computer genius Andric and his increasingly nervous lab assistant (Lou Taylor Pucci), the former excited by the idea that his creation seems capable of bonding with humans.

Things inevitably take a dramatic turn when A.X.L. is attacked by Sam, who uses a flamethrower (doesn't every teen have one?) to set him on fire. Miles and Sara desperately try to repair him, even as the military uses a massive assemblage of drones to track down what they call "the asset."

Devoid of humor or suspense, the film muddles along with as little sense of purpose as its main characters. It doesn't help that the robot dog is quite menacing looking, making the attempts at cutesiness feel strange. We never come to care about the relationship between A.X.L. and his human companions, and when Miles' father tries to warn him about bonding with a killing machine it seems like sage advice. And the resemblances to E.T. feel more like rip-off than homage, from the climactic sequences involving the military closing in on their invention to A.X.L.'s metallic imitation of Miles' voice.  On the other hand, the film's young target audience is unlikely to recognize the many borrowings.

Rendered through a combination of CGI and puppetry, the A.X.L. character proves reasonably convincing. But he's really not much to look at (unless, of course, you go for killer robotic dogs), and the film's dialogue certainly isn't much to listen to. Director/screenwriter Daly adapted this feature from his 2015 seven-minute short, and you get the feeling that longer definitely isn't better.

Production: Lakeshore Entertainment, Global Road Entertainment, Phantom Four Films
Distributor: Global Road Entertainment
Cast: Alex Neustaedter, Becky G, Alex MacNicoll, Dominic Rains, Thomas Jane
Director/screenwriter: Oliver Daly
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, Eric Reid
Executive producers: David Kern, James McQuaide, Elizabeth Gesas, Adam P. Schenider, Tom Ortenberg, Kassee Whiting
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Suzuki Ingerslev
Editor: Jeff McEvoy
Composer: Ian Hultquist
Costume designer: Lindsay McKay

Rated PG, 100 min.