In the sixties, it was Landru, Nomad and the M-5, all talked to death by Jim Kirk; perhaps they could have been persuaded to a swifter electronic suicide had he just played them The Transformed Man. The seventies were bookended by Colossus, designed by Doctor Forbin to protect the world which instead decided to take it over, then Vejur, unimpressed that its creator was not there to greet it on its return to Earth. And let’s not even get into the raft of Terminators since the eighties.
Killer machines and anti-social artificial intelligences have been a sub-genre of science fiction for decades, the latest being the SAR (Study, Analyse, Reprogramme) units of former visual effect supervisor Steven Gomez, now turned writer/director with his feature debut Kill Command, as experienced marine squad Reaper One are sent to a remote location on what is described as a training exercise.
Captain Damien Bukes (Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal‘s Thure Lindhart) is reluctant and distrustful of Specialist Katherine Mills (The Frankenstein Chronicles‘ Vanessa Kirby), representing tech company Harbinger One and there to keep an eye on both the troops and the hardware across the two day exercise, but upon approach she loses her uplink, leaving them out of contact with the outside world.
What should be an inconvenience quickly becomes much worse; something is blocking their communications, leaving them without means of call for backup or pickup, and the automated target drones are firing back at them with live ammunition. Wells confirms that Reaper One were specifically requested for the exercise but cannot tell them by who, but it soon becomes apparent that it is not they who are training, it is the drones who wish to use the squad for target practice as they hunt them across the countryside and use their own tactics against them.
With the training exercises going predictably to hell in a bloody handbasket in a remote woodland setting Kill Command reminds of nothing so much as Dog Soldiers with big stomping machines replacing the werewolves, but crucially it lacks any of the charm of Neil Marshall’s classic low budget horror debut.
Military science fiction requires either a group of brave fighters individual and distinct enough to make a lasting impression on the viewer or to offer so glorious and audacious a spectacle that it cannot be ignored, the latter out of the question for a production of this scale filmed in Suffolk, Surrey and Essex, the former not addressed by Gomez’ pedestrian script.
With the banter between the rest of the troops on the flight to the mission unconvincing and little subsequent chance for development, the supporting cast comprising Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands‘ David Ajala, The White Queen‘s Tom McKay, Home Fires‘ Mike Noble, Pandorica‘s Bentley Kalu, The Fall‘s Kelly Gough and The Huntsman: Winter’s War‘s Osi Okerafor are poorly served, little more than faceless cannon fodder waiting to meet their fates.
In the most prominent roles, Bukes is closed off and detached, a far cry from Lindhart’s warm and vulnerable performance in Keep the Lights On, while Kirby’s compromised designer and programmer has none of the intensity she displayed in the National Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, both underplaying to the point of disengagement.
Where Kill Command does impress is in the hardware, both digital and practical, imposing and boldly functional, the mechanical killers patrolling the woods akin to the sentry drones of the Director’s Cut of Aliens set atop a body which moves like the warrior bug from Klendathu, while the calculating malevolence of their powerful and threatening leader unit is expressed in the movements of its head unit, the arachnid arrangement of its eyes reminding of Starship Troopers‘ brain bug.
Retreating to the landing platform where the few survivors weld the doors behind them, another nod to Aliens though the design is more Return of the Jedi, at one hundred minutes instead of generating tension and thrills the film desperately needs tightening, a great technical achievement undermined by a repetitive narrative of diminishing returns and endemic dullness, killer machines in need of an off switch.