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Space dragons? Space cannons!

The lingering question of Kin is how they got all these name actors to do the movie. It had a modest budget, to the tune of $30mil, yet features some surprising performers. Let alone a score from Mogwai. The question isn’t raised by it being a terrible movie. In spite of the dismal reviews and it not doing so well at the box office, Kin is surprisingly good if you don’t expect too much ambition from it.

The two things to know about it going in are that it is basically a love letter to James Cameron, especially the Terminator films, and that it can sometimes feel like the two stories its trying to tell are too far apart. I think it’s a fair criticism to say that the science fiction elements of Kin can sometimes feel like an afterthought. That said, it feels true to the kinds of movies that it most resembles. Movies from the 80’s that told fairly humble stories with other-wordly fun at the margins. Mileage will vary big time on whether you still care by the time the movie lets the cat fully out of the bag. Honestly, Kin is the kind of movie I would have grown up watching and loving, even if I realized later that good is the best it ever gets. It’s a story about brothers made by a couple of brothers so if that’s your cup of tea, this movie might not feel as under-cooked as it will to those primarily here for the gizmos and doodads.

I AIN’T NO KIN TO SPOILERS

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This pickup truck father and son thing is one of many references to other things.

Kin is primarily about a couple of brothers who go on the run after a robbery spirals out of control. One of the brothers is fourteen and caught up in his older brother’s inability to not be a pain in everybody’s ass. Sound like a familiar sort of set up? Well, it is. And it’s also where Kin‘s main priorities are. I think some of the reception for the movie owes to people expecting it to go a lot deeper into the scifi than it does. For long stretches, it kind of forgets it’s a science fiction movie at all. If these scenes didn’t work, if the relationships in the film weren’t carried by some pretty capable actors, the movie would completely fall apart no matter how ready the viewer is to accept that it’s very low-key about its genre leanings.

Eli (Myles Truitt) is the kind of quiet, sensitive kids that movies like this are often built around. He’s a lot like Elliot from E.T., for example. When we meet him, he’s starting to act out while still mourning his mother’s passing. His father (Dennis Quaid) is a stern man who isn’t around much while his brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) is a fuck-up just getting out of a six-year stint in jail for robbery. Because he owes protection money from prison, Jimmy is mixed up with some arms dealers led by James Franco (because why the fuck not?) who are pretty much gonna kill everybody if he doesn’t pay them.

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The future of BMX?

While the family drama plays out, a little side-story begins. Eli has been stripping abandoned buildings for copper as a way to make some money (a practice his dad, a construction worker, disapproves of) when he stumbles on a squad of dead dudes wearing futuristic clothing. He finds a mysterious weapon, a kind of pull-out rifle that glows, makes weird noises, and has a bunch of holographic effects. He runs off, scared, but returns in the middle of the night to retrieve the object.

Later, dad walks into Jimmy helping James Franco and his own goon of a brother (brothers, you see?) to some money from dad’s construction company. Things go wrong and dad is shot and killed, prompting Jimmy to flee with the money after mortally injuring James Franco’s brother. With space gun in hand and ears full of Jimmy’s lies about meeting their dad in Tahoe, Eli goes along on what sounds like just the sort of adventure he needs.

 

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The way Franco goes out in this movie is pretty great, actually.

Now, James Franco is not playing the kind of criminal who just lets things like that go. No, he’s a mad dog with a mullet and hummingbird tattoos on his fucking neck. Franco can play characters like this in his sleep (he’ll never top Alien in Spring Breakers anyway), leveraging his somewhat off-kilter looks to menacing effect while still bringing a little something extra to the performance. He’s fine here, if a bit distracting. Thankfully he doesn’t do a “look at me, I’m James Franco!” type of performance, cuz he has been known to do that in these small movies he sometimes pops up in. This being the sort of movie that doesn’t just wave its tropes off and expect the audience to roll with things, there’s an interesting funeral scene for Franco’s brother that builds a little dimension to the character. Franco isn’t really in the movie that much, but is one of its strongest parts since he uses every scene to build the kind of schlocky villain that is familiar but with a slightly fresh spin.

But James Franco and his small army of thugs aren’t the only thing Eli and Jimmy have to worry about. There are also a pair of cool-looking and high-tech people tracking them. Are they cops? Bounty hunters? Some kind of assassins? You don’t find out until the end of the movie. Or this review. Whichever you do first.

 

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Always down for Ms. Kravitz.

Because this is a road movie first and foremost, like I said before, the story wouldn’t be complete without at least one major diversion. Reynor is a pretty good actor when he wants to be and sells Jimmy as a hustler who runs away from every problem, but particularly his emotional problems. He’s ashamed as fuck about what happens to dad, and you can see it in his body language as he tries to hide it by showing Eli a good time. This movie never feels like more of a throwback than when he gets the bright idea to take Eli to a strip club. There, they meet Milly (Zoe Kravitz) who occupies the classic stripper with a heart of gold archetype, saved only by Kravitz being charismatic and game enough to not skate on the trope. She’s still the thinnest character in the movie by far, but again we’re dealing with something that owes its greatest debts to the sun-baked cocaine-infused adventures of the 80’s. Which might seem weird to say given that Kin was primarily marketed to the under 18 crowd.

Anyway. Enough bad shit happens that time finally catches up with the brothers and they get caught. Cameron’s disembodied filmography shows up in the biggest way here, where James Franco decides “fuck it” and has his goons occupy a police station in “Sulaco County”. Naturally, they have to kill a dozen or so cops to do it and while they aren’t Terminators and none of them look remotely like Arnold Schwarzenegger, there’s no mistaking what the Bakers are up to. Subtle, this movie ain’t.

 

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Truitt is good enough here that I’d expect to see more of him soon.

One of the big surprises of the movie, though, is that the end skirts a little bit away from John Connor (though he’s there too) and brings in some Superman. You were waiting the whole movie to find out where the weapon came from, who those futuristic bikers are, and the Bakers knew that. Though exposition-heavy, the ending tells us that Eli is a refugee in hiding from a war being fought in another dimension. The movie saves some of its coolest special effects and ideas (the way they open a portal is cool) for this. They also save a great cameo from Michael B. Jordan who I thought was playing “future Eli” when I first saw his face. You can’t blame me for thinking this was going to be a time-travel movie due to the tech and other hints, but I like that it dodges the obvious and goes for something weirder. With Eli being as much of a Kal-El as he is a John Connor, some scenes earlier in the film (liking talking to dad about responsibility) are re-contextualized as another piece of the reference puzzle that makes up Kin.

As is the way of these things, Kin teases a sequel. It won’t happen, but I’d be down for one in this universe. Especially if they showed us what was on the other side of that cool-ass portal. Take me to the future-dimension, Michael B. Jordan!

So while they save the biggest genre stuff for the ending, I don’t think it’s fair to blame the Bakers for treating those elements as the sweet candy at the bottom of the popcorn bag. I know I said this movies feels like there’s too much distance between the two storytelling priorities, but a lot of that is down to editing. I thought a few times that there were shots or scenes that could have been reshuffled to keep the audience a little better invested in the “scifi mystery” at the edges of Kin. As much as I did like the genre elements, I know it would be a fair criticism to say that this movie would be much the same without them. That is a good argument for Kin having a fumbled execution, though I think it’s lovable enough of a movie to not be too badly hurt by that. These days, it’s all in the expectations of a thing. I had fairly low ones for this movie, something I decided to watch because I wanted something passably fun on a sick day. It more than delivered, since it’s emotional core is not stupid or dull (just familiar) and gives the movie enough heart to make it better than it’s getting credit for.