Watching Tim Smit’s Kill Switch is a lot like watching over your friend’s shoulder as he plays a first-person shooter. It’s exciting at first, when neither of you have more than a vague sense of what it’s about; then merely interesting, when the conceit is clarified and the shape of its plot coheres; and then tedious to the point of boring, because you desperately want to get in a round, but your buddy just won’t give up the controller. The tedium intensifies in the context of a movie, of course, because there’s no such thing as consumer control when watching movies. By their very nature, they’re indifferent. They tell the same story the same way each and every single time, whether played for a packed theater, or at home for a lone viewer.
First-person perspectives aren’t a new thing in the movies. Just go back to 2016 and see if your constitution is strong enough to tolerate Hardcore Henry, or maybe take a gander at the first-person sequence in 2005’s Doom. Kill Switch shares more in common with the latter than the former, being comprised of roughly half third-person sequences where Dan Stevens is required to emote hangdog mystification and sober regret, and half first-person POV shots where Stevens is heard, not seen, and by consequence disappears into the picture. There’s never a reason given for the film’s rotating vantage points; they just rotate, with the first-person sequences usually fading into third-person flashbacks following an explosive set piece that leaves Stevens’ character unconscious.
Maybe Smit meant to tell Kill Switch entirely through the first-person, but found that he couldn’t justify hiring an actor as dapper and good-looking as Stevens without showing his face, or maybe there’s subtext to the shift in aesthetic that isn’t immediately obvious. Most likely, Smit just thought using the first-person would enhance the film’s action, and the third-person would help maintain his themes and throughlines. Whatever his reasoning, his approach doesn’t quite work: It drives a wedge in Kill Switch’s pacing, first generating inertia, then dispersing it in a single fade to black before starting the process afresh. Imagine sitting passenger side in a car whose driver alternates pumping the brakes and flooring the gas, and you more or less have an idea of what it’s like to sit through Kill Switch.
The worst drawback of Smits’ visual ploy is its innate de-emphasis on Stevens, here playing Will, a physicist-cum-NASA pilot hired by a semi-shady energy giant that has built a tower capable of siphoning unlimited quantum energy from an engineered copy of our world, thus solving Earth’s energy crisis. But Kill Switch’s science is unreliable, as movie science tends to be, so Will has to “jump” to the copy, a mirrored universe dubbed The Echo, to keep the place from literally falling apart, and that’s where things get ugly. The Echo is supposed to be void of life, but Will repeatedly runs into people he knows from his home world: His boss, Abby (Bérénice Marlohe), and his work chum, Michael (Tygo Gernandt). Something’s up in The Echo, and not just the planes, trains and automobiles routinely sucked into the sky by gravity vortexes before falling unceremoniously back to the ground.
It’s not that the film doesn’t give Stevens enough to do. It’s that the most important components of his work are masked by dint of perspective. Seeing The Echo through Will’s eyes sure is nifty, but in those moments we begin to feel that anyone could be standing in as Stevens’ surrogate; all we get from Stevens is the same American accent he adopts in Ido Fluk’s The Ticket, the sound of vinyl sizzling at its edges. (Inexplicably, Smits cast two Brits, Stevens along with Charity Wakefield, playing Will’s sister Mia, as Americans relocated to Holland.) His presence is dulled in The Echo, and being as he’s our anchor in Kill Switch’s drama, the effect is distancing. Yes, Marlohe and Gernandt are there to remind us of the “world divided” mechanic, but they’re never more than static characters with predictable motivations. They can’t keep us hooked.
Granted, the film might not have turned out much better had Smit stuck with one perspective or the other, but at least it would have had constancy. Instead, it reads strictly as a videogame, sans the requisite interactive gratification. Hardcore Henry might make you want to puke, but that movie has the chutzpah to follow its concept all the way through to its bloody, dizzying end. Kill Switch is a decidedly less decisive thrill ride, or if not that, it’s certainly bumpier, with 2017’s most ubiquitous leading man giving his all as Smit’s direction routinely shoves him off the screen. It’s either puzzling or vexing, and either way it’s plain old disappointing.
Director: Tim Smit
Writer: Charlie Kindiger, Omid Nooshin
Starring: Dan Stevens, Bérénice Marlohe, Tygo Gernandt, Charity Wakefield, Mike Libanon
Release Date: June 16, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.