Movie Review: “Kill Switch,” with Dan Stevens, Bérénice Marlohe, and Tygo Gernandt
We’re in a strangely symbiotic pop-culture space right now where video games and movies are mirroring each other: The former are being developed with insanely detailed visuals and popular actors voicing characters, almost like movies, and the latter are moving into the kind of POV style that immerses audiences in a very singular way, just like video games. So in the vein of 2016’s Hardcore Henry comes Kill Switch, another R-rated action flick that invites the viewer to directly experience the protagonist’s journey of time travel, flashy guns, and drone warfare. It sounds more exhilarating than it actually is.
Set in what seems to be the present day, triple threat Will Porter (Dan Stevens, of Beauty and the Beast), a physicist, Air Force pilot, and NASA astronaut, is hired by the mysterious, powerful Alterplex Energy. Advertisements for the energy company pop up throughout the movie, promising a “clean and simple way of converting mass into clean energy” that will “power the world for millennia to come.” Their solution is something called an “energy tower,” a huge structure they’ve built in whatever country they’re in (the U.K. or somewhere in Europe, I assumed, because Will and his family are clearly American and moved there for his Alterplex job) that, when launched, will create this clean energy solution.
But what actually is the tower? What does it do? How does it work? Why does Alterplex Energy need its own army of security forces? Why are there eco-rebels intent on dismantling Alterplex Energy’s work? What government is involved in this? Those are questions that the movie delays answering, instead jumping right into another mystery: Will waking up in what seems like a mirrored version of that world, one where the tower is already active, the city seems abandoned, and the streets are filled with dead people. “The jump was most likely successful, but I can’t confirm,” Will says. “I need to verify if this is really the Echo.”
How all these things link together—these two worlds, the jump, the Echo, the tower, and Will’s role in it all—are slowlyunraveled throughout Kill Switch, which cross-cuts between those Alterplex commercials and various timelines to tell its story. Most everything centers around Will, and the primary supporting characters are the Alterplex representative who recruited him, Abigail Vos (the wonderfully alluring and threatening Bérénice Marlohe of Skyfall, who does the best with the limited role she’s given) and former Alterplex security member Michael (Tygo Gernandt), who is shocked to see Will alive.
Writer and director Tim Smit (stylized as TimSmiT in the end credits) is adapting the film from his own short What’s In The Box?, using a script from Omid Nooshin and C. Kindinger. Smit’s use of visual effects is probably the best part of this. The icy-blue energy shooting out of the tower is a threat that hangs over everything, and how the world where Will wakes up is stylized—with hovering, insect-like drones and giant wormholes opening up in the sky, dropping ships and trains to the city below—is fine sci-fi stuff. And while the video game-style POV is obviously not everybody’s thing, the movie smartly uses the protagonist’s computer screen for humor, like flashing the text “CONCUSSION DETECTED. CONTACT YOUR LOCAL HEALTH OFFICE” every time after Will is shot at, smacked in the face, or otherwise harmed.
But the story of Kill Switch falls apart practically immediately. There are some brief mentions here of the science behind the film’s concept—duplicate matter theory and string theory both get shout-outs—but the script doesn’t do enough to explain the motivations behind Alterplex Energy and why they would place Will in the position that they do. What they hire him to do seems to change midway through the film, and there isn’t much explanation about what Alterplex thought would happen if their plan were successful—instead of being a failure, which is the purpose for the movie. It’s a kind of circular narrative logic that means the movie doesn’t make much sense.
That sketchiness means that the action of the movie needs to be stronger than the plot, but there isn’t that much exciting stuff for Will to do, no particularly thrilling violent exchanges or intense action sequences (which Hardcore Henry reveled in). For the most part, Will reacts to what happens around him, and that means that the viewer invited to take part in his POV will feel somewhat stagnant, too. And it’s a flaw of Stevens’s performance that during the POV scenes, he never seems to react quite appropriately to what’s going on around him—his voice acting often falls flat, not demonstrating the kind of panic or desperation that someone who wakes up in an alternate dimension would most probably be feeling. There’s a distance between his voice performance and the visual world of Kill Switch, and the first-person sequences suffer for it.
It probably goes without saying that the concept of Kill Switch would be better served as a video game than a movie. Exploring an altered version of our world, diving into city streets and underground tunnels, evading murderous drones, and working against the evil of a greedy corporation would probably make for solid hours of gameplay. But in the limited version of this story that plays out in the film, Kill Switch isn’t nearly as exciting as it could be.