Dogs have been suiting up for battle since ancient times, and the stories of those loyal, brave creatures have long captured our imagination. The teen thriller “A.X.L.,” written and directed by Oliver Daly, adapted from his short film, “Miles,” imagines the potential outcomes when cutting-edge military technology is adapted to man’s best friend.
In “A.X.L.,” Robodog doesn’t even make it to the battlefield — he only gets as far as the war waged between a couple of teenage punks in a desolate desert town. Miles (Alex Neustaedter) is an up-and-coming competitor on the motocross scene, trying to keep up with richie rich Sam Fontaine (Alex MacNicoll). After a nasty prank leaves him stranded in the middle of nowhere, Miles encounters the robot dog A.X.L. (the name stands for “Attack, Exploration, Logistics”) cowering in a junk yard after escaping from a nearby military facility.
His teeth are whirring gears and he guzzles gasoline, but Miles looks beyond the hunk of highly sophisticated machinery and sees that he’s just a whimpering pup and sets about repairing him like he would a motorbike. Before too long, A.X.L. has imprinted on Miles as his new soldier buddy and the pair fight their way through bullies like Sam, who is rather fond of recreational flame-throwers, and the military teams sent to retrieve the very expensive lost weapon. Thanks to the radical motocross setting and a synth-heavy score by Ian Hultquist, “A.X.L.” has a fun retro ’80s vibe.
The question of the dog’s soul is at the heart of “A.X.L.,” as it is at the heart of every movie about robots. Can they pass the Turing test? Do they have autonomy? Sentience? Rights? It’s hard to probe the idea of “humanity” when it comes to a dog, but the very nature of dogness is love and devotion. Is the not-so-furry A.X.L. capable of that, or is it just a few lines of code?
This is a quandary that “A.X.L.” leaves on the table, rather than pushing the idea to its limits — “Ex Machina,” this is not. It’s a sketch of a film, relying on tried-and-true genre conventions and character archetypes, like the mean rich kid (whose father is played by Ted McGinley, for crying out loud; the man who defined the mean rich kid in “Revenge of the Nerds”), and the beautiful, artsy poor girl Sara (Becky G). It’s a boy and his dog story with elements of “Pretty in Pink,” “Rad” and “The Wraith,” and it’s those references that kinda make this movie work.
The film isn’t sturdy enough to withstand any analysis of its politics regarding the military and secret technologies, though Dominic Rains as the devious dog designer Andric, and Lou Taylor Pucci as his techie make for an entertaining pair. There are a lot of unanswered questions about A.X.L., most pressingly, what is the tactical reason for the disco lights he can shoot out of his head while playing mood-appropriate tunes?
“A.X.L.” is clearly set up for a sequel or a franchise, and while it may not make it that far, it is a fine, if lightweight, little slice of throwback-’80s teen movie tropes with some high-tech flair.
Rated: PG, for sci-fi action/peril, suggestive material, thematic elements and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release