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 €150. 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 9,” 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.