Kill Command (2016) Review
Kill Command was directed and written by Steven Gomez (Outside the Wire, Cognition) and stars Thure Lindhardt (The Bridge, Despite the Falling Snow), Vanessa Kirby (Me Before You, Hobbs & Shaw), David Ajala (Starred Up, Star Trek: Discovery), Mike Noble (The Siege of Jadotville, Dark River), Bentley Kalu (Black Ops, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway), Kelly Gough (Out of Innocence, Raw), Tom McKay (The Undeclared War, Interrogation of Rudolf Hess), and Osi Okerafor (Casualty, Guilt). It follows a group of soldiers as they find a way to outwit a legion of belligerent training robots.
The Plot: Gomez has an adoration for Predator and The Terminator and stitches the two major ideas behind both of their plots together in a mostly careful way while adding a handful of new ideas to spice up the equation, making something separate from its influences.
Harbinger corporation employee Mills (Kirby) catches wind of a S.A.R. (study, analyze, reprogram) military training robot that has been reprogrammed by someone at a practice setting. With the information that an army unit led by Captain Bukes (Lindhardt) and made up of Drifter (Ajala), Goodwin (Noble), Robinson (Kalu), Hackett (Gough), Cutbill (McKay), and Loftus (Okerafor) are going for a two-day training exercise on the island where the anomaly has occurred, she tags along. Gomez drops a few lines to let viewers know that something isn’t right, with the unit having been on three training sessions in three days on the same island and is now off to another.
Everything goes as normal for a while, with the group assuming their positions and scouting the surroundings, but their supervisors aren’t present, instead replaced with autonomous camera drones that are more curious than any previous commander was. It’s when they’re confronted with their first training targets, some small unmanned ground vehicles that things go awry. Mills wanders from the group and finds an S. A. R. That’s monitoring the action, waiting for the sun to go down to strike unseen and kill Loftus. What sets the setup apart is that it’s all during a training session, with the soldiers less weary than on the field.
The group uses their remaining time until pickup to escort Mills to the complex housing the robots, including more S.A.R units, so she can figure out why they’ve been armed with live ammunition and find a way to shut down the mechanical force before it eliminates the entire team. Another bit that’s helpful in differentiating Kill Command is the mystery element to the story, with Gomez leaving motives in the air until the third act where a crescendo of reveals and a final stand cap off the movie, though not without some unnecessary sequel bait.
Kill Command doesn’t have an original starting point for its story, but it does break away from the mold in due time, offering world-building and a change of conditions to make the best of its template.
The Characters: Heady instead of brawny, a lot of the characters in Kill Command are different from those in its competitors by way of ambiguity in backstories and a handful of various relationships between the soldiers.
Bukes is a well-trained and experienced captain, with tours in the military leading him to 18 confirmed kills. He’s an expert tactician, making strategically sound battle plans for every encounter, even when the robots turn lethal. He’s quiet, even around his men and more so when near Mills, who he doesn’t take too kindly too on account of her affiliation with a corporation that’s taking away military careers.
Mills is a “tech” employed by the robotics company. Paralyzed until age 11, she was “chipped” as a sponsor of Harbinger which made her fully mobile again, and eventually augmented with electronic eye implants that allow her to access networks at a glance. These abilities don’t sit well with most of the soldiers, who are unnerved at her ability to pull their personal information in less than a second. They can’t neglect her though, as, without her, they can’t stop the slaughter on hand.
Drifter is the sole exception to the trend, being more well-read than the rest of the group and taking interest in the technologically advanced woman. He’s charismatic and possibly romantically interested in her, but the movie wisely doesn’t force the angle. The others are archetypes; Goodwin is a rookie and gets picked on, but is snarky in return, Robinson is a sniper with some eye augments of his own and a showy personality, and the rest are interchangeable fodder. None of the above are deep, but they have intrigue, which is more than effective.
The Thrills: Some of the comparisons to Predator and The Terminator are unavoidable in the thrill regard. The basics of both are so ingrained in Kill Command that it can feel too familiar at times, but it’s largely exciting and moody.
The buildup to the hostilities between man and machine is strongly executed. From the first scene, Gomez is alluding to the battle that will soon take place via the characters’ suspicion of the machines and the anomalous reprogramming. Making the suspense inch ever upward is the surveillance being done by drones, meaning that the robots are always aware of the location of the humans, making surprise impossible provided those drones are active. Indeed, the robots are able to get the drop on the soldiers multiple times, raising an ominous feeling.
Studying, analyzing, and reprogramming make up the most important element of Kill Command: the robots learn the positions, weaponry, movement, and patterns of the soldiers and use them against their creators. It’s a decision that makes Bukes’ masterful planning work against him in the long term, with the robots reusing the choreography of their defences making novel ideas seem like a misstep. Making a new plan could be their undoing, it’s tremendously engaging to wonder what elements the mechanical menaces will utilize in their next attack.
A sort of equalizer in the mix is Mills’ limited degree of control over the electronics in the barrier facility and ability to prevent some firefights, as the robots don’t have any intention of harming an affiliate of the Harbinger Corporation. Still, the robots aren’t yet perfect, missing shots frequently, meaning a stray bullet could put an end to the possibility of escaping the island.
Kill Command offers a somewhat balanced battle between man and his creations but always keeps the S.A.Rs on the winning side, making for an upward fight towards salvation. Some sequences are lifted from the classics, but the execution is strong.
The Technics: With his feature-length debut, Gomez shows aptitude for further filmmaking prospects. Kill Command, whatever it may have cost, certainly punches above its budget.
Visual effects deserve first praise, with the helmer starting (and continuing) to be a leader in effects design. The shots at the military base before the characters set out to train are a little shaky, but everything else looks fantastic. CG location enhancements are barely noticeable, Mills’ neon blue eye augments are striking, the design for the S.A.Rs is distinct, and everything is superbly detailed.
Set design and locations are equally strong, as the forest setting is misty and expansive, further adding to the sense of dread that comes with the inhuman enemy. Photography of the landscape is good too, with the camera preferring to hang back, taking in the scenery and appearing as spectating from the bots.
The writing could use work though, as more than a few scenes are copied and pasted from other movies, and a few contrivances are present in the narrative and enemy behaviour. Dialogue can be clunky at times too, with exposition being handled poorly on occasion.
It takes a little too much from the classics and has its fair share of other minor problems, but Kill Command is a very good debut that deserves to be talked about more (and to get a blu ray release in the US).
Kill Command is available on DVD and various Digital platforms from Vertical Entertainment. And if you’re still in the mood for robotic mayhem, let FilmTagger’s AI recommend a movie.