As a family comedy Robo-Dog is an utter travesty. But few films have ever managed to unsettle me this much.
On the making of feature for Jason Murphy’s Robo-Dog, there are several enlightening tidbits from the cast and crew. One particularly precious quote comes mid-way through, from Starship Troopers star Patrick Muldoon, when, in a moment of spectacular self-delusion, he tries to convince us (and himself) that the film has a “naturalistic style”. Now Robo-Dog has many things, including a scene in which a man is sucked up a robotic canine’s anus, but a naturalistic style is not one of them.
Some might say that a film like this defies serious criticism, and there is some truth to that. However, in this case, a plot synopsis in of itself functions as a sufficient review.
Little Tyler is a young boy of an indiscernible age, sometimes going through puberty, whilst at other times playing with toy trains and planning his pet dog’s birthday party. Said dog (which by the way is actually named Dog. No, really) is his only friend in the whole world. He does however have a positive relationship with his parents, who, rather than encouraging their son to make friends with people of his own species, facilitate his unhealthy fixation with his pet.
One day, in a sequence straight out of a Final Destination film, a series of unfortunate coincidences lead to Dog’s untimely death. Bereaved and inconsolable, Tyler refuses to move on, causing his scientist father, named Tom, to fall behind on his work creating a new ‘super battery’. When Tom goes into work the next day (at a scientific corporation populated by roughly five scientists), he attempts to catch up on the development of his world changing product. However, part way through his work, he is interrupted by the theme music of his boss. That is genuinely what happens by the way. Anyway, he is forced into rushing his experiments for indiscernible reasons and ultimately loses his job.
Yet, in the forever wholesome world of Robo-Dog, unemployment is something that families simply shrug off with a “Gosh darn it”. Rather than setting out to earn a living or support his family, Tom instead tries to create a substitute for his son’s missing dog. Combining his research on the super battery with a new design, he comes up with the titular Robo-Dog.
What ensues is an E.T style story of a boy and his fantastical friend. In line with the classic Spielberg film, Tyler has to hide Robo-Dog from society and protect him from a greedy agency who wish to harness his technology. Said villainous agency is no other than Tom’s ex-boss, who is called Bruce Willis (No, REALLY).
Aside from agonizingly bad slapstick and an all-round perverse sweetness, it’s Robo-Dog himself who is the real weak link here. These schmaltzy boy-and-his-pet films rely pretty heavily on the central creature being in some way appealing. Instead, what we get is an unintentionally text-book example of the uncanny, with a talking dog that moves in unnatural ways, looking like it’s emerged from a J-horror film as it jerkily drags its butt along the carpet. The eeriness only gets worse from there, as it begins to voice emotional sentiments with a haunting and dispassionate efficiency. For instance, at one point it turns to Tyler’s mother with its dead, dead eyes and says “I love you Miranda” with all of the cold insincerity of HAL 9000.
Truth be told, this might actually be a surrealist masterpiece in the making. The exchanges between human characters are positively Lynchian, and the way in which no one ever seems to be amazed by a dog that can hold back a car with its teeth, lends the whole thing a curiously dream-like atmosphere. Add to that some truly baffling dialouge like “Jiminy Jupnuts” and you might actually have something that’s quite avant garde. Or shit. In fact, probably just shit.
Although the making of documentary is probably the funniest film of the year, with Olivia d’Abo seemingly talking about another film altogether; saying things like “it’s very disarming for the audience”, or “we just found even more momentum and even more places where we could really emphasize the messages that we were trying to translate”, best of all is the moment in which she asserts that there are lots of “underlying subtle messages that are very right for this time that we’re in right now”. Who are we to say that she’s wrong?
Robo-Dog (2015), directed by Jason Murphy, is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Icon Home Entertainment. Certificate PG .