Sunday, September 9, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: A.X.L.

A.X.L. was written and directed by Oliver Daly. He previously wrote and directed the short film Miles, and that's pretty much it.

Miles was a Kickstarter-funded short about a young BMX rider who finds a robotic dog and bonds with it. Daly simply took that basic plot and expanded it to feature length here.

A.X.L. feels a bit like a throwback to 1980s kids' movies. You know, the kind that Spielberg made in his prime— except not nearly as well done or competent. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose. Other than a lack of orginality.

It's a perfect example of the "Boy Meets Amazing Creature" power fantasy genre, with a healthy dose of military and authority figure danger thrown in for good measure. Think E.T: The Extraterrestrial crossed with War Games or Cloak And Dagger and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it's like.

It's also VERY similar to 2017's Monster Trucks. In fact it's practically a shot for shot remake, but with a robotic dog instead of underground squids. Given the fact that film was a MASSIVE critical and box office failure, it seems like a really bad idea to use it as a template.

At times A.X.L. feels like an adult's idea of a kids' movie. There's a hero who's handsome enough for the girls to swoon over, but rugged enough for the guys to wish they were him. It's loaded with sweet motocross action, because kids are still into that these days, right? There's also some mild danger, but not too much, and a tepid romantic triangle. And don't forget the robotic dog! Kids and dogs, amirite?

If you're wondering why you've never heard of A.X.L. and why it seemingly came out of nowhere, there's a good reason for that. It's brought to us by the fine folks at Global Road Entertainment. They're the studio that brought us beloved box office hits such as Midnight Sun, Show Dogs, Hotel Artemis, Siberia and Zoe

Unfortunately, they're currently teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, just once year after their founding. Take a good look at this logo, kids! It's about to disappear forever, as I don't think A.X.L.'s gonna dig them out of the financial hole they're in anytime soon!

So far A.X.L.'s grossed an embarrassing $6.2 million against its incredibly low $10 million budget. Jesus Christ! This film cost a fraction of the price of most blockbusters, and it STILL couldn't make back its money!

This is why marketing is so important, kids! If you want audiences to show up for your film, you've gotta let 'em know it's in the theater! I had no idea this movie even existed until a day or two before I actually saw it. Never saw a trailer, movie poster or online ad. Nothing! I get that the studio likely didn't have a lot of money for marketing, but still... This is what you get when you don't advertise.


The Plot:
Miles Hill (played by Alex Neustaedter) is a typical movie teen, meaning he's brooding, intense and a bit of a loner. He's also heavily into motocross racing, and his working class dad Chuck 
(played by Thomas Jane, who apparently needed a yacht payment) serves as his mechanic. 

Miles breaks a chain during a race, causing him to lose. Chuck informs him they're fresh out of spares.

Miles sheepishly asks Sam Fontaine and his dad if they can borrow a chain. Sam is Miles' motocross rival, and the film's Designated Asshole.™ Sam's also filthy rich, and backed by corporate sponsors (?). Unfortunately, Mr. Fontaine (played by an unrecognizable Ted McGinley tells Miles they can't possibly spare a chain.

Miles walks dejectedly back to his dad's ancient truck. Suddenly he's approached by Sara Reyes (played by Becky G), the daughter of the Fontaine's housekeeper, and sort of girlfriend to Sam. They meet cute as she drops a chain she stole from Sam into Miles' lap. So she's a thief then. Got it!

Miles attaches the new chain and is able to beat Sam and win the race! See kids? Stealing helps you win! Sam is so impressed with Miles' moves that he invites him to a party at his mansion. As a brooding loner, Miles says he'll think about it.

Meanwhile, there's a commotion at the nearby Craine Research Facility, Dr. Andric is building a robotic dog for the military. He calls the dog A.X.L., which awkwardly stands for Attack, Exploration and Logistics. A.X.L.'s meant to assist human soldiers in the field, and is programmed for loyalty (?) and outfitted with an array of onboard weaponry.

Unfortunately, A.X.L. escapes the facility for reasons, and Dr. Andric and his team frantically try to get him back. He unleashes a swarm of small "hornet drones" to locate and incapacitate the robot. A.X.L. spots the drones and hides in a junkyard.

Miles decides to show up at Sam's party. While there, he and Sara hit it off. Sam sees them and becomes jealous, even though he's not really dating Sara. Confused yet?

The next day, Sam invites his new bestie Miles to go off-roading in the desert with him and his posse. While Miles isn't looking, they sabotage his bike by pouring an energy drink (I think?) into the gas tank. Miles attempts a spectacular jump, but crashes when his engine seizes up.

Because he's a sneaky little asshole, Sam films the embarrassing incident and posts it online. He and his crew then leave Miles in the middle of nowhere.

Miles limps along to a junkyard, and manages to fix his bike. He hears a noise and sees A.X.L. emerge from a storage container. He jumps on his bike and speeds away, the robotic dog nipping at his heels. A.X.L. chases him through the hills, but eventually slips and impales himself on an iron rod.

A.X.L. runs a diagnostic and decides to self destruct. Just then Miles tentatively approaches the robotic dog, and A.X.L. scans him. He determines Miles isn't a threat, and shuts down the self destruct with about a second to spare. Luck-EEEE! As darkness falls, A.X.L.'s programming bonds him to Miles.

Meanwhile, Sara finds out that Sam left Miles stranded in the desert. She goes looking for him and miraculously finds him. A.X.L.'s initially suspicious of her, until Miles says she's a friend. They spend the night getting to know one another in the junkyard, but since this is a kids' movie, nothing untoward happens.

Back at Craine, Andric and his fidgety assistant Randall are monitoring all this. Randall wants to alert the military immediately and recapture A.X.L., but Andric says no, as he "wants to see where this goes." Now THAT'S good writing!

Sara says they should return A.X.L. to the military, but Miles refuses, claiming they somehow abused the robotic dog. Sara shows Miles an abandoned house where she paints murals, and says it's the perfect place to hide A.X.L. till they figure out what to do with him.

It's around this time that A.X.L. produces a little key fob from the top of his head. Miles takes it from him, and it punctures his thumb, drawing a drop of blood. A.X.L. then uses this tiny blood sample to permanently bond himself to Miles. This means the robot now has to follow Miles' every command, and will defend him to the death. I'm pretty sure A.X.L. was already bonded to him and was obeying him before this, but whatever.

Just then Sam shows up, furious with Sara for staying out all night with Miles (even though they're not dating). A.X.L. sees Sam threatening Miles, and leaps from the house. He pins Sam to the ground, displaying a mouth full of sharp, whirling blades. 

He's just about to kill Sam when Miles orders him to stand down. Sam wets himself and runs off, promising revenge. Miles orders A.X.L. to stay in the house and hide, and he and Sara leave.

They go to Miles' house, where he tells Chuck about A.X.L. and asks what he should do. Oddly enough, Chuck accepts his son's wild tale, and says they should return the robotic dog to the military immediately.

Elsewhere, Sam returns to the abandoned house with an Elon Musk brand commercial grade flamethrower. He calls out A.X.L. and amazingly he's able to destroy him with simple fire (???). Sam and his posse cackle with glee and leave. In fact, Sam walks right out of the movie at this point, as he's never seen again!

Shortly afterward, Miles and Sara go back to the house and find A.X.L. near "death." They take A.X.L. to a secluded, well-stocked garage, that I think belongs to Sam's dad? Maybe? Through the power of a montage, these two teens are somehow rebuild the sophisticated robotic dog (!). Once they finish though, A.X.L.'s still comatose. For not good reason, he displays a holographic time on the wall, which counts down the hours until his system will reboot (?). 

The Army finally gets involved and asks to see the robotic dog they're funding. Dr. Andric tries to stall them, but they go over his head and send out a squad of soldiers to recover their property. They go to Miles' house and question Chuck as to his whereabouts. He refuses to answer, until he's forced to at gunpoint. He then sings like a canary, telling the Army that Miles and A.X.L. are at the Fontaine garage. Wait, how could he possibly know that?

The Army arrives at the garage, right at the exact moment that A.X.L. finally reboots. What are the odds, eh? Miles tells A.X.L. to run, and he escapes (again). The soldiers tie up Miles and Sara, and release another swarm of drones to look for A.X.L.

Cut to A.X.L. running through the countryside, with the drones in hot pursuit. They close in and attach themselves to his body, shorting him out. The Army then picks him up and transports him back to Craine. Why go a facility run by the untrustworthy Dr. Andric, instead of their own base? Good question. Stop thinking so much!

Meanwhile, Chuck threatens an Army officer and escapes captivity. He arrives at the garage and frees Miles and Sara. Miles jumps on one of Sam's (I guess?) bikes and goes roaring off to Craine to rescue A.X.L.

Miles arrives at Craine, and somehow sneaks through the facility's high tech security. He finds A.X.L., frees him, and the two jump a fence as the soldiers gaze at them in dumbfounded wonder. An officer orders a chopper to chase after them.

There's a big action setpiece chase, as Miles and A.X.L. run from the chopper. Eventually they're forced to leap off a cliff to try and escape. Miles wrecks his bike and breaks his arm. A.X.L. sees the chopper and another swarm of drones approaching, but is reluctant to leave his friend. Miles tells him to run and save himself.

A.X.L. speeds across the desert floor, but unfortunately the drones are faster. They being attaching themselves and shorting him out yet AGAIN. Unwilling to serve as a  military weapon, A.X.L. decides to self destruct. As the timer counts down, he uploads his memory to the cloud (apparently he's a robotic dog with wifi!). As the countdown reaches zero, he detonates in a massive explosion.

The movie then wraps up all its storylines in the most simplistic and hilarious way possible. Andric is arrested and thrown into military prison for needlessly endangering the lives of civilians. For no good reason, the Army absolves Miles and Sara of all responsibility in the incident, instead of making them "disappear." They even give them both full college scholarships in exchange for their silence! 

Chuck says goodbye to Miles and Sara as they both head off to college. He wishes Miles good luck in his robotic classes, and gives him a puppy— a real flesh and blood one this time. He also gives Miles the now dormant key fob, which bonded him to A.X.L.

We end as Miles, Sara and the puppy are frolicking on the beach. Suddenly the key fob lights up! The End. Or... is it?

• Since A.X.L. is obviously a kids' movie, I'm willing to cut it a bit of slack. It's unfair to judge a movie for kids by the same standards you would one for adults. That said, there are obvious structural and story flaws in the film, which I will be pointing out.

• Oddly enough, at the time of this review both A.X.L. and Alpha are playing in the cineplex at the same time. A.X.L. features a modern teen who befriends a robotic dog, while Alpha's all about a prehistoric teen who befriends a dangerous wolf. The settings and details are different of course, but at their core they're the same damn movie!

• Kudos to the filmmakers for building an actual animatronic A.X.L. puppet, used in most of the closeup scenes. It definitely helped, as it gave the actors something to interact with, rather than having to look at a tennis ball on a stick. I'm happy to see the gradual return of practical effects, as directors realize the value in them.

That said, the A.X.L. design is amazingly butt ugly, with a rigid head that lacks any sort of expression. Jesus, even the terrible Transformers robots had mechanical eyebrows to give their faces a bit of life.

As a result of this lack of expressiveness, we never really develop any feelings toward the robot dog one way or another. That becomes a rea problem when he's injured or "killed" and we're supposed to care.

• Naturally A.X.L.'s not a wholly practical effect— there's plenty of CGI as well, particularly whenever he's required to run and jump. Most of it's pretty well done, especially considering the movie's tiny budget.

For some reason, the movie doesn't bother to show us A.X.L.'s escape from the research base. Instead we're simply told he escaped. It's easy to figure out why— because it would have cost too much to shoot, and the film had a shoestring budget to begin with. 

I'm actually not that bothered by this, as the director effectively uses visual storytelling to imply what happened. Miles notices A.X.L. has bullet holes along his side, indicating the military tried to stop him. How he escaped isn't that important anyway— he's a robot dog, built for strength and speed. It's not that tough to figure out how he got away.

WHY he escaped the center is the major problem. We're never given even an inkling as to what caused him to run. It's vaguely implied that the researchers mistreated him, which is patently silly. That's like your toaster running off because you never clean its crumb slot. 

And even if A.X.L. was being abused, surely the scientists would have programmed him NOT to run away, right? Of course if they did that, there'd be no movie, so...

Normally I don't need every little detail spoon-fed to me, as I can figure out missing plot pieces for myself. But this is a kids' movie, for corn's sake! Things need to be spelled out more clearly for them. They won't have any idea how A.X.L. escaped or why he left!

• For a kids' movie, A.X.L. has a peculiar and cavalier sense of morality. At the beginning of the movie, Miles breaks a chain during a race. He tries to borrow one from Sam, who says no. Sara then straight up steals a chain from Sam and gives it to Miles, who then wins his race!

Remember that, kids! It's OK to steal to win! It's even more OK if you steal something from an asshole who doesn't deserve his good fortune!

In a similar vein, later in the film Miles & Sara take A.X.L. to a secret location, and stop for gas. Unfortunately, they don't have any money to pay. For some reason, A.X.L. has the ability to hack into an ATM and cause it to spew out money. Not just twenty bucks for gas, mind you, but thousands and thousands of dollars. Sara gleefully scoops it all up and they roar off in the truck. Again, kids, if you don't have something and want it bad enough, go ahead and steal it!

• When Miles is traipsing around the junkyard, he wears a helmet that looks a LOT like the one Master Chief wears in the Halo videogames. In fact when I first saw the trailer, I thought it WAS the same helmet!

• When Miles first encounters runs into A.X.L., the robot dog is wearing a muzzle over its mouth (!). A couple things here:

First of all, you muzzle a dog (or any animal) when it's vicious and unpredictable, to keep it from biting someone. Despite his overall shape, A.X.L. isn't a dog. He's a robot with a program that determines his behavior. 

Even if  he has a rudimentary A.I., his creators could still build in some standard safeguards, like "Don't Bite Anyone Wearing A White Lab Coat." There's no reason to have to muzzle him like a real dog!

Secondly, that must be some muzzle! A.X.L.'s jaws are likely controlled by powerful pistons, which could snap a standard muzzle without even trying. It'd be like tying a robot's hands with a piece of rope. What's this muzzle made of, adamantium?

One last thing about the muzzle before I mercifully move on. As I said above, in the actual movie, A.X.L. wears a muzzle when he first encounters Miles. This same scene appears in the trailer, but for some reason there he's muzzle-free. Weird! I guess they didn't have time to explain why he was wearing in the trailer?

• As Miles fixes him up, A.X.L. notices a can of gas on the ground and nudges it, signaling that he wants some. Amazingly, Miles actually pours the gas into an opening on A.X.L.'s back! Now there's something you don't see every day! A gasoline-powered robot dog!

Later on we see A.X.L. has small maneuvering thrusters in his sides, that help him make sick jumps over mountain trails. I guess maybe these jets are gas powered?

• Several times in the film we see shots from A.X.L.'s point of view. Like all movie robots, his vision is a blocky and incredibly lo-res nightmare, overlaid by a confusing array of readouts 

I've never understood why robots in movies consistently have such poor vision. We currently have tiny GoPro cameras that film in glorious 1080p resolution. So why does A.X.L.'s vision look like an Atari 2600? Why couldn't they just stick two GoPros in his eye sockets and call it a day?

• A.X.L. also has a feature that comes in really handy when interacting with him. When he's calm and passive, his eyes are bright blue. When he's angry and provoked though, they glow a bright, sinister red. Nothing like a weapon that telegraphs its intentions!

• Sara calls A.X.L. by name thirty seconds after meeting him, even though Miles doesn't mention what he's called.

• Miles & Sara spend the night in the desert with A.X.L., and worry about how much trouble they'll be in when they return to their respective homes. I guess it never occurred to either of them to whip out their cell phones and call their parents?

I suppose it's possible that there was no reception in the desert, but they never even try.

• In the desert, A.X.L. helps Miles woo Sara by providing a light show for them to dance to, courtesy of a holographic projector that pops up out of the top of his head.

I'm not even gonna ask why a weaponized robot dog would come equipped with a device like that.

• After A.X.L. escapes, Dr. Andric is able to detect him and monitors his every move. He could easily recover the dangerous and expensive robotic dog at any time, but instead he does nothing. His reason? Because once A.X.L. meets up with Miles, Andric wants to sit back and "see where this goes."

Look, I get it. If Andric recalled or captured A.X.L., then the movie would have been over. The writer needed an excuse for Andric to drag his feet in order for the film to happen. Unfortunately he went with "do nothing," the lamest reason possible

I can think of several better explanations they could have used to extend the runtime. A.X.L. could have realized he was being tracked and shut off his homing beacon. Better yet, the tracker could have been damaged in his initial fall, so Andric couldn't detect him. Miles could have found the tracker, realized what it was and shorted it out. And and on.

I know, I know, kids' movie and all that. But this is downright ridiculous, and some extremely lazy and inept writing.

• Several times in the film we see schematics showing that A.X.L.'s armed with a back-mounted gun of some kind. Yet for some reason, he never uses it even once during the entire film. Not even when he's being chased by an army helicopter, when such a weapon would have come in really handy.

I'm assuming the budget came into play here again, and it would have been too expensive to film him using it? That or the writer didn't want to make A.X.L. too powerful. So why introduce it then?

• A.X.L.'s a deadly, weaponized robot designed for armed combat, that's meant to augment and protect American soldiers on the field of battle.

So how come he can be completely destroyed by a single teen douchebag wielding a consumer grade flamethrower?

• I'm impressed with how Miles and Sara were able to repair and rebuild a sophisticated military robot by themselves. Even more impressive is the fact that they did apparently did so using only parts and materials they found lying around Mr. Fontaine's garage! Now THAT's a well-stocked workshop!

• Dr. Andric is played by actor Dominic Rains. I'd never heard of him, but it turns out I've actually seen him before...

Rains played Kasius, the Kree overseer of the Lighthouse in Season 5 of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.! Wow, he was totally unrecognizable there! As anyone would be, I guess, once their entire face was painted bright blue.

• As I said earlier, I get that this is a children's movie and you have to cut it a certain amount of slack. That said, even a kid should realize the characters all get off way too easily at the end of the movie. The Army would likely toss Miles and Sara into a Guantanamo Bay-like gulag for the rest of their lives, for their involvement and interference with the A.X.L. project. 

Even if the Army did absolve them of responsibility, there's no way in hell they'd give them both full-ride scholarships! Jesus!

Chuck's situation is infinitely worse. He actually pointed a crossbow at an Army officer in order to escape captivity! There's no way he wouldn't get at least a twenty year sentence for something like that.

• The end of the film, in which Miles receives a signal from A.X.L., indicating he's not as dead as we were led to believe, is ripped straight from the script of The Iron Giant. The only thing missing was a blinking screw!

A.X.L. is a bland and utterly forgettable kids' film in the tradition of The Iron Giant, but unfortunately it comes off more like Monster Trucks. It's not that it's terrible, it's just utterly predictable and incredibly uninspired. Kids may find some value in it, but any parent unlucky enough to be dragged along will be bored out of their mind. But hey, they built a practical robot puppet instead of relying totally on CGI, so that's something, right? I give it a C. I'd have scored it even lower, but I'm trying to remember it's a kids' film and be lenient.


  1. If it's called A.X.L., why the hell does the movie poster display the title as A-X-L? I googled, and while imdb used the latter, wikipedia and rotten tomatoes use the former. Confusion abounds.

  2. While researching the movie I saw it listed as A-X-L, A.X.L. and even just plain AXL.

    I'm assuming the hyphens in the poster were a stylistic choice? Definitely not a grammatically proper one.

    Since the name in the movie was an acronym (Attack, Exploration and Logistics), I'm going with A.X.L.

  3. I'll bet box office is so low because moviegoers went to the theater looking for A-X-L, saw only A.X.L. or AXL, and just said "screw it" and bought a ticket for Crazy Rich Asians.


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