Film Review: Kill Switch

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) leads a visually ambitious, convoluted muddle of gamer-influenced science fiction.
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Pity poor Will Porter, the discombobulated protagonist of director Tim Smit’s effects-heavy, emotionally bereft sci-fi actioner Kill Switch. Porter, played with assertive intelligence by Dan Stevens, spends almost the entirety of Smit’s videogame-style feature running for his life around an evacuated Amsterdam, deeply confused about the events that led to his predicament, demanding of all whom he encounters, “What the f*#* is going on?”

The repeated question gathers unintended comic steam as the film’s loopy nonlinear structure disseminates the pertinent answers randomly, haphazardly or not at all. While it generally is quite clear what is happening onscreen—we can, at least, distinguish the good guys from the villains—questions regarding why any of it is happening lead only to more questions. For instance, why was Will, an American physicist and former Air Force pilot, recruited by the story’s Netherlands-based energy company, Alterplex, in the first place? Surely, he isn’t the only skilled pilot on the planet with a physics degree.

One of those all-encompassing futuristic movie mega-corporations, Alterplex, according to one of the company’s ad spots that pop up interstitially between action sequences, has “developed a clean way of converting mass to pure energy.” Vaguely referencing string theory and gravitational physics, the script, based on Smit’s short film “What’s In the Box?”, posits that Alterplex technologies can generate a duplicate of our known universe called “the Echo.” Then, exploiting the gravitational or electromagnetic interconnection between the opposing dimensional planes, the company can produce enough energy via its two highly charged, gleaming office towers to power our alpha planet “for millennia to come.”

Will, who supports his sister, Mia (Charity Hawkins), and her young son, Donny (Kasper van Groesen), since a prior traumatic event that’s never adequately addressed, relocates with them to an Amsterdam suburb in time to somehow assist with the project’s launch. And he’s on hand when the project goes devastatingly awry, stranding him, it appears, within the Echo. Separated from Mia and Donny, and pursued relentlessly by heavily armed Alterplex goons and flying unmanned drones, Will hasn’t a clue as to exactly what went wrong, though he does soon encounter a rebel outfit that was responsible for attacking the Alterplex labs. These rebels seek to put an end to Alterplex’s encroaching control of the world’s energy supply. What plans they might have beyond that are anyone’s guess.

For his part, Will does keep guessing, trying to make sense of it all, along with the audience, while escaping in the nick of time again and again from countless bullets and grenades fired in his direction. This is one of those movies in which ostensibly well-trained and coordinated quasi-military forces waste dozens of rounds shooting holes in surrounding windows and walls, but can’t seem to manage a direct hit on our hero.

Despite his own military background and resourcefulness, there’s little about Will’s physical presence, or Stevens’ performance, to support the character’s seemingly superhuman perseverance against truckloads of gunmen and squadrons of flying drones. In fact, since Will’s perspective while inside the Echo is represented wholly via first-person camerawork, Stevens’ action-hero performance is merely vocal. Placed squarely in Will’s shoes for more than half the film’s running time, the audience experiences his journey as one might watch video gameplay. The character’s every move is viewed through an onscreen computer interface, as his disembodied hands wield rifles and machine guns, or pilot a disabled chopper, while the other characters directly address the camera as Will.

Whether this constitutes innovation in indie-budgeted sci-fi storytelling, or just a cynical attempt at videogame universe-building for ancillary products soon to follow, it’s not that engaging, although the visual effects—conceived, designed and supervised by Smit—are eye-catching. The Alterplex towers generate several immense, unstable vortices in the skies over Amsterdam, and Smit orchestrates a few genuinely awesome images of planes, trains, ships and automobiles being sucked up to the clouds, then spit back down to Earth with catastrophic results. Bolstered by strong sound design and cinematography, the film achieves a distinctive look and dimension that unfortunately is hindered by its spotty integration of the CGI and practical effects.

The film is more greatly hindered, however, by its lack of compelling characters. Will finds some assistance in his quest, whatever that might be, from two Alterplex colleagues—Michael (Tygo Gernandt), a former company security guard, and Abigail (Bérénice Marlohe), the company’s chief of operations, neither of whom develop meaningful motives beyond aiding Will. Marlohe, an intriguing femme fatale opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Skyfall, appears as lost as Will here, playing a character whose allegiances are cloudier than the vortex-plagued skies over Amsterdam. Gernandt fares better, but not much, in his relatively straightforward role as a working man-turned-freedom fighter. Neither character adds much involving emotion to the monotony of chases and escapes.

The one relationship the audience is given to truly care about is the familial bond of Will, Mia and Donny, and it’s primarily Hawkins as Mia who makes that work. Her bright, watchful eyes and sharply expressed misgivings about Alterplex and Will’s top-secret job create an effect that Smit and his F/X team only rarely manage: genuine interest in what might happen to these people.

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