Science-fiction thrillers can fall through the cracks.
Especially amid a busy summer season, it always falls to a studio’s marketing arm to ensure audiences come out. Original-concept sci-fi requires marketing that signals both the strength of its cast and the mainstream appeal of its premise.
When it comes to major-studio sci-fi, the well’s also been essentially poisoned at this point by years of generic, underwhelming filmmaking that does little apart from huff the conceptual fumes of films that came before. All of this is to say that when Kin hit theaters in the summer of 2018, the odds were stacked against it.
Not only were audiences looking elsewhere, with studio behemoths like Mission: Impossible — Fallout, The Meg, and Crazy Rich Asians (plus surprise hit Searching) still dominating the box office. But Lionsgate had marketed the film essentially as an afterthought. Perhaps spread too thin by the dog days of August, the studio had launched one solid performer, comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me, a few weeks earlier, and it was already deep into marketing Paul Feig’s far splashier A Simple Favor, out the next month.
So when Kin debuted to the brutal tune of $3.1 million domestically, a fast fall to the bargain bin felt inevitable even before it logged one of the most significant second-weekend slumps in history, making $804,401 in its sophomore frame. (Translation: ouch.) Now that the film’s streaming on HBO Max, here’s why it deserves a second chance at finding a wider audience.
Jonathan and Josh Baker directed Kin to expand their short film Bag Man, which had played SXSW in 2015. Adding to the short’s initial premise, the film follows a young boy named Eli (Myles Truitt, who’s next appearing in Stranger Things) who goes on the run with his ex-convict older brother, Jimmy (Midsommar’s Jack Reynor).
Essentially a hot-pursuit crime thriller with a sci-fi twist, Kin establishes a gritty, real-world motive for the brothers’ escape and a more genre-appropriate complication that will influence its ultimate direction.
While scavenging for copper wire to sell in an abandoned Detroit building, Eli has stumbled upon the wreckage of a high-tech skirmish between forces from the future. Within all the rubble and in between armored corpses, Eli finds a strange device that activates upon contact. Dreaming of this high-tech machinery, he later retrieves it, hiding the device in the house he shares with his adoptive father Hal (Dennis Quaid).
Meanwhile, brother Jimmy — Hal’s older, biological son — has returned home on parole, much to Hal’s consternation. He owes protection money, and a not-insignificant amount of it, to a local crime lord named Taylor (James Franco, suitably menacing). After begging Hal to help him steal the necessary funds from Hal’s employer, Jimmy ends up out on the street, where he decides to break into the office safe and steal it himself. But when Hal anticipates this and shows up to intercedes, Taylor shoots him. Devastated, Jimmy returns fire, slaying Taylor’s brother and fleeing.
Feeding Eli a lie about their father’s whereabouts, Jimmy gets out of dodge and brings his brother along to keep him safe — not realizing that Eli has tucked the mysterious weapon into his bag. Swinging into a dive bar, the two meet heart-of-gold stripper Milly (Zoë Kravitz), only for Jimmy to get wasted and draw the ire of the club’s owner. At this point, Eli panics and fires the weapon, blasting a pool table to bits. Unbeknownst to any of them, firing the weapon causes it to emit an energy signature, one that two ominous (and admittedly Daft Punk-looking) figures on motorcycles sense and quickly start to track down.
At this point, all of Kin’s moving pieces begin to snap into place, especially as it becomes clear that Taylor isn’t far behind Jimmy and Eli. When Milly joins them on their unquestionably ill-fated road trip, she starts a romance with Jimmy and assumes a somewhat maternal role toward Eli. Were it not for the chemistry Kravitz builds with Reynor, this plot development would fall apart. Instead, she has a certain hard-bitten charisma that elevates the strength of Kin’s ensemble.
Still, Kin is primarily a showcase for its two male leads. As a lifelong screw-up reckoning with the brutal consequences of his desperate decision-making, Reynor supplies the necessary pain and pathos. He has a great foil in Truitt, a naturalistic young actor whose expressively wondering features serve as a roadmap to the film’s emotional twists and eventual transformation into a more Spielbergian sci-fi vehicle.
Faster than you might think, Kin approaches its finale setpiece: a tense shootout in a police station, where all the parties interested in Eli, Jimmy, and their mysterious weapon converge in a hail of blasts and bullets. Taylor gets there first, which feels in keeping with the tone of Kin as a grounded crime-thriller about one young man’s efforts to dig his family out of the deadly position he’s put them in.
But when those aforementioned masked figures on motorcycles show up, the information they have to share with Eli sends Kin into a more enigmatic, synth-driven sci-fi space. (The ambient score, by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, is one area in which Kin resembles a much bigger movie than its failed theatrical run backs up.)
And given that Truitt will appear in the fourth season of Stranger Things, it’s interesting to consider what a terrific audition tape this film must have made. As Eli is forced to contemplate the existence of worlds warring outside his own, Truitt displays a raw gravity that keeps the film anchored in place (if not, to risk spoilers, time).
Kin features two other solid performances from sizable Hollywood stars. Carrie Coon (responsible for giving one of the great all-time TV performances on HBO’s The Leftovers) takes on the supporting role of an FBI agent hot on everyone’s trail. Michael B. Jordan (the next-generation Hollywood A-lister best known for Black Panther, Creed, and Without Remorse) graces the film’s third act with a surprise appearance that’s too pivotal to Kin’s biggest twist to even hint at.
That so much top-tier talent was attracted to Kin should, in this instance, be read as an endorsement all its own. The film’s far from perfect, and it could benefit from striking a more even balance between its family strife and sci-fi elements. But Kin is also far from the conceptual flop its poor box-office performance might indicate, and its better moments suggest other road-trip sci-fi odysseys like Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special and John Carpenter’s Starman. That’s terrific company.
Kin can’t match their heights, but it’s quietly wondrous, solidly executed sci-fi entertainment that plays best on a quiet weeknight in fall — when the sky’s full of stars and feels a little more secretive than usual.
Kin is now streaming on HBO Max.