Do you remember the fun 80s science fiction comedy Short Circuit? The one where a robot designed for war is hit by lightning and somehow this installs it with life and sentience, causing it to go on the run and befriend a sweet civilian protagonist? This is basically the same premise of writer/director Oliver Daly’s sci-fi adventure film A-X-L, but instead of a miraculous lightning strike, this movie goes with the dumbest “artificial intelligence” put to film as its focal point. The level of stupidity in this script is only matched by the number of clichés per minute of screen-time.
The hero of this movie is Miles Hill (Alex Neustaedter), an underdog motocross racer whose chief nemesis is Sam Fontaine (Alex MacNicoll), a rich kid who has his sights set on the beautiful Sara Reyes (Becky G), a plucky teen whose mom works for the Fontaine family as a maid, but Sara falls in love with hard-luck case Miles instead of the rich douchebag. If there were a template for generic teen dramas, this movie would hit every point — with cliché’s lining up as if on some kind of timetable — and someone should have told the filmmakers that throwing in a robot dog would not hide the lack of originality on display here. The robot itself is one of the laziest contrived elements I’ve seen in quite some time — and I’ve sat through every Transformers movie — as A-X-L’s blossoming artificial intelligence is one of the most moronic concepts in the history of science fiction. I get that the filmmakers were going with a sci-fi version of “A boy and his dog,” but the contortions the script had to take so this would be possible is beyond the pale ridiculous.
A-X-L (Attack, Exploration, Logistics) is an advanced next-generation artificial intelligence robot that was designed by private contractor Andric (Dominic Rains) — insert standard evil scientist cliché — and it was to follow in the steps of the “war dogs” that have fought alongside man over the millennia. So the film’s plot, if you can call it that, has to do with A-X-L escaping from Crane Systems because they’ve been abusing it, which leads to the first of many questions: “How exactly does one abuse a robot dog?” Did they not take it for walks? Did they punish it with a hit across the nose with a rolled up piece of aluminum? Or maybe they just forced it to watch this movie? Well, apparently A-X-L had been repeatedly shot during field testing, but being it is a weapon of war, how is that considered abuse? When Andric programmed A-X-L’s logic algorithms did he, for some bizarre reason, include pain receptors and the ability to feel fear? The artificial intelligence in this movie is of the standard trope that it will “evolve” over time, but in this case, you have to admit that’s not very conducive to a weapon of war, and in this film we see A-X-L apparently afraid of fire. How effective can your combat robot be if it shows this level of fear?
Sure, you’d want your robot dog to have a certain level of self-preservation, but at one point in the film, it is practically destroyed by asshat Fontaine’s flamethrower — and don’t ask me why a rich motocross dude has a flamethrower — and it shows no willingness to defend itself or even run away from the threat. These are not key traits you want in your military asset. Even stranger is that there is an element that has A-X-L biometrically bond with a soldier — in a way that negates any other commands by its creator — and this is supposedly there to replicate the loyalty of actual dogs, but we are talking about a machine, not a living breathing creature. A machine’s loyalty should just be a matter of proper programming, not emotional bonding. The artificial intelligence designed for A-X-L is way too complicated; all it should need to know is what the commands are and what’s the targets — anything more is just asking for trouble. If the filmmakers had wanted to make a film about a teenage boy befriending an advanced robot dog, they should have gone the Iron Giant route and had A-X-L come from outer space because not one component of this robot’s design makes a lick of sense.
Right from the outset A-X-L and Mile’s relationship is completely unbelievable; when Miles first encounters A-X-L, the robot dog goes into “pursuit mode” — it needs fuel and the motorbike is a likely source — and it viciously chases after Miles, but after our hero is able to evade this weapon of war, by doing rad motocross stunts, he then goes back to check on the thing, a creature that for all intents and purposes was trying to kill him. This isn’t Elliot checking out the backyard shed to find a cute alien; we’re talking about a massive robot dog that was attempting to take you down. Miles is simply one of the lamest and uninteresting characters put to screen, but it’s not just Mile’s character that doesn’t work, the script does no one any favors — it’s bad on every level.
Stray Observations and Spoilers:
• Military-funded scientists create a robot dog that somehow develops the desire to escape.
• They didn’t think of installing a remote kill switch so they have to send a swarm of drones to find it.
• When A-X-L is first found by Miles, the robot dog is wearing a muzzle. Were the designers actually aware that it could turn on its masters and bite them?
• A-X-L likes to run and frolic like a real dog, it even chews a metal pipe as if it were a bone, but why would these doglike traits be programmed into a robot built for combat?
• Why can A-X-L only communicate via a cellphone? There is no logical reason a combat robot, even one in dog shape, shouldn’t be able to just talk to its masters.
• A-X-L attacks asshat Fontaine, who was getting into it with Miles and Sara, but Miles calls off the robot dog before it can harm the big bully. Once again illustrating that its attacks are really kind of lame.
• Later that night, Fontaine returns with his gang of friends to destroy A-X-L with a flamethrower. Now Miles had told A-X-L not to harm Fontaine, which apparently puts the jerk into some kind of “protective” status in the robot’s mainframe, but Fontaine can’t know this, so his showing up at night to fight a giant killer robot dog makes no sense; him calling the authorities would have been more likely.
• The appearance of Thomas Jane as Miles’ grease-monkey dad serves no purpose other than adding a little “star power” to the proceedings.
• The movie ends with a destroyed A-X-L rebuilding itself after its self-destruction — which it did to prevent being captured by the military — and it reaches out to Miles. This ending is almost a complete lift from The Iron Giant, which again begs the question, “Why not just go with the whole alien robot thing in the first place?”
It’s clear that A-X-L was intended to be a “family friendly” adventure flick — there is surprisingly little violence in a film about a combat robot dog — but even if you let slide all the teen drama clichés, and by God, is it all very paint by numbers on that front, we’re still left with a film that insults the viewer’s intelligence at every turn. Then to top it all off, it is quite apparent that writer/director Oliver Daly really loves motocross as there is so much screen-time spent on Miles and his buds driving around on their bikes — doing EXTREME stunts — that we at times forget we are supposed to be watching a movie about a robot dog. The only truly positive thing I can say about this film is the actual dog itself looks pretty cool, the CGI is top notch and the design itself is quite good, but none of that comes close to making this a film I could ever recommend watching.
Movie Rank - 3.5/10
There are certainly worse movies about robots going rogue – either on the side of our heroes or against – but A-X-L is so mind-numbingly bland that if it weren’t for the moments of sheer stupidity it’d be completely forgettable.