In 2009, a pair of young filmmakers from the Netherlands, Tim Smit and Steven Roeters, made “What’s in the Box?,” a 10-minute science-fiction short that wedded the first-person camera of video games like “Half-Life” with astonishing cut-rate special effects — all at a reported cost of EUR150. For his debut feature “Kill Switch,” Smit has expanded the short into a full feature, with rising star Dan Stevens in the lead role, and the effects are again incredibly resourceful on a limited budget, from futuristic security drones and weaponry to “Robocop”-esque graphic interfaces and an alternate Earth. Had Smit developed his themes as scrupulously as his visual effects, “Kill Switch” might have been the next “Primer” or “District B13,” but instead it feels like a demo reel for a game that nobody can play. Stevens’ name may bring some new sci-fi devotees to Smit’s digital playground, but his most evident talent remains strictly below-the-line.
Working from a script by Omid Nooshin and C. Kindinger, Smit sketches the outlines of a fascinating corporate dystopia, but never quite fills in the clarifying details. In an effort to throw viewers into the action as quickly as possible, the film cuts back-and-forth between an astronaut’s death-defying mission in a parallel universe and the mundane circumstances that brought him there. After a stretch of deliberate and initially effective confusion, the premise finally starts to take shape: With the Earth exhausting its fossil fuel supply and still searching for viable forms of sustainable energy, a massive corporation called Alterplex has found a controversial solution. Through some extraordinary technological wizardry, Alterplex has created a copy of the Earth called “The Echo,” from which it can draw resources without affecting any carbon-based lifeforms. The connection between Earth and The Echo is made through an energy beam that emanates from a massive tower in Holland.
Now here’s where things get confusing. In order to secure the connection between worlds, Alterplex has hired an American astronaut, Will Porter (Stevens), to travel by portal to The Echo, a mission he accepts to benefit his sister (Charity Wakefield) and her special-needs son (Kasper van Groesen). Once there, Will has to deliver a box called “the redivider” to the tower to stabilize the system, but when he gains consciousness, he discovers that he’s eight kilometers away and in the middle of an unexpectedly chaotic situation. Environmental anomalies are causing trains, ships and other debris from Earth to fall through holes in the clouds like rain, and the conflict between Alterplex and a militant environmental group has spilled out onto the Echo, too. Joining forces with Abigail (Berenice Marlohe) and Michael (Tygo Gernandt), two of his less-than-trustworthy colleagues at the company, Will must slip through rebels, security drones and natural catastrophes to get the box to its destination.
If the description of Will’s predicament has you reaching for the controller, that’s entirely by design. All the footage on The Echo — and thus most of Stevens’ performance — is shot through the graphic interface on his helmet, which mirrors the perspective of a first-person video game. His mission, too, to deliver an object from one point to another through heavy gunfire and hostile terrain is another gamer-friendly touch, as are the weapons power-ups he acquires along the way. The gimmick isn’t dissimilar from the handheld science fiction of films like “Cloverfield” or “Chronicle,” but its visceral impact is persistently undercut by the anodyne conflict of its flashback scenes and the overall vacancy of its ideas. The effects get all the creative attention.
On top of the many logistical questions about The Echo itself and how it works, “Kill Switch” misses the context that might have made it more meaningful as a commentary on corporate nefariousness or environmental neglect. The inner-workings of Alterplex and the political conditions that have granted it so much power are hastily established and thinly wrought, botching a more potent statement about the reliance on monolithic companies to solve the world’s problems. At worst, the non-action sequences resemble the “cutscenes” in video games — those dry interstitial story bits that link one part of the adventure to the next. Only here, gamers don’t have the option to click right past them.
There’s the kind of bad movie that just sits there, unfolding with grimly predictable monotony. Then there’s the kind where the badness expands and metastasizes, taking on a jaw-dropping life of its own, pushing through to ever-higher levels of garishness. “The Book of Henry,” directed by Colin Trevorrow from Gregg Hurwitz’s script, is of the latter, you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-disbelieve-it variety.
The film’s muted yet still rather flamboyant terribleness derives from the fact that it seems to be juggling three or four borderline schlock genres at once. It starts off as one of those movies about a precocious kid genius — and on that score, for half an hour or so, it’s actually rather watchable. Then it evolves into a tale of the child abuser next door. Then it morphs into a disease-of-the-week weeper, at which point the awfulness is only just getting started. For “The Book of Henry” — I’m trying not to give too much away — is a movie about how an 11-year-old brainiac lays a trap for the child abuser, all as a way of taking everyone through the grieving process. It’s not entirely clear whether you should be laughing, crying, or waving a white flag.
In the picture-postcard town of Cavalry, New York, Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) lives with his feisty, affectionate, video-game-playing single mom, Susan (Naomi Watts), and his little brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), and he knows everything about everything. He knows how to play the stock market (and win!), which is why he handles the family finances. He knows advanced mathematics and medical science and how to build Rube Goldberg contraptions in his treehouse — and more than that, he knows how to feel and express things with adult emotion. He’s not one of those Hollywood whiz kids whose head is bigger than his heart. He’s a genius of humanity as well!
Jaeden Lieberher is the best thing in the movie. As Henry, he never smiles, but he’s sly and quizzical and engaged, with a look of woodland-animal alertness that reminded me of the young Leonardo DiCaprio (remember him in “This Boy’s Life”?).
But then that pesky illness gets in the way. All the objections one might raise to a movie that features a tragic ailment crashing in out of nowhere are at play here: that it’s a way of manipulating the audience, of programming our responses rather than earning them. Trevorrow, whose one previous major credit is the highly impersonal stomp machine “Jurassic World,” knows a thing or two about programming responses, though he isn’t bad with actors. He draws out Sarah Silverman as Susan’s snippy boozer waitress pal, and Watts lets her feelings shine right through her skin. The actress doesn’t hit a false note — at least, not until the disease drama gets put on hold. But it’s here that “The Book of Henry” enters a zone of domesticated preposterousness. (RTRS)
By Scott Tobias