We Gotta Talk About: ‘KIN’ (2018)
2018’s understated science fiction drama tackles family dynamics and personal responsibility with the dashed hopes of more to come
Jonathan and Josh Baker’s KIN is a movie I’m sad to say I dismissed when it was dropped on me in August 2018, seemingly out of nowhere and with little fanfare. It’s a movie I would’ve loved to have seen in theaters, especially since it was boasting an IMAX screen. But, theater hopping is a family affair. And my peeps are typically against science fiction films, or so indifferent to the theatergoing experience (these days) that it takes a film of noisy proportions (Black Panther) to get them to consider spending money where they believe it isn’t necessary. KIN was a modest sci-fi film starring no one they knew, so I would’ve been out of luck.
The grand majority of reviews for and reactions to KIN were decidedly negative. And I mean, overwhelmingly so. It was a case of, “Did someone spit in your cheerios?” levels of negative. Historically sci-fi and horror are still viewed as schlock genres (often with good reason). But in retrospect, I cannot for the life of me figure out why this film stirred such a revulsion in people that they were throwing around 5/10 and 2/5 ratings like they were going out of style.
It’s like finding out people loathed Dante’s Peak and Deep Impact (otherwise solid genre films, unlike their counterparts, pardon the irony) after living on the side of the fence that enjoys those films, warts and all. But in 2018, with absolutely nothing to go on, I just kinda shrugged and thought, “Well, so much for that.” I suspect that was the reaction of the few people waiting to see if an original, non-franchise, sci-fi film would be worth sitting in a theater for versus an established franchise that disappoints but keeps them coming back.
And, honestly, that’s a shame.
Earlier this year, I decided I would watch KIN and two other films the general audience similarly regarded: Fast Color and Captive State. I figured the worse that would happen is that I’d lose a couple of hours of my life for the sake of an article. KIN was the second film I watched out of the three and I’m confident I saw an entirely different film from everyone else.
In terms of [Black] science fiction narratives, KIN falls somewhere in the middle of John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. It’s dedicated to the conventions of its genre, but is not preoccupied with reproducing some nostalgic version of past genre films.
The script invests itself in a personal narrative and uses sci-fi and crime elements to bolster that. It’s not a cyberpunk dystopia, a chosen one story, or a tale of genocidal, we-know-better aliens obsessed with killing mankind. It’s an gritty, heart-on-its sleeve family drama about brothers.
THE MAN WITH THE BAG
This project originally spawned from us wanting to play with a longer narrative timeline, consciously trying to instill it with elements that inspire us as directors. An urban New York backdrop? Check. A quiet minimal journey-based story? Check. A subtle smattering of sci-fi that begs for questions to be answered damn it?! Checkity… check. — Inside the Bag
Four years before KIN’s theatrical debut in 2018, Jonathan and Josh Baker wrote and directed a fifteen-minute short film titled Bag Man. Released September 9, 2014 (and later debuting at SXSW 2015), the film followed a quiet twelve-year-old boy (Judah Bellamy) who lives with his mother (Raushanah Simmons) in Harlem, New York. When he’s sent off to school, he leaves the gray, muted environment of his Harlem neighborhood for the cold and sleepy fields of Upstate New York to experiment with a weapon of alien design.
The Block-Nosed Rifle (BNR) — the Big Fucking Gun of the Baker universe — is the point of all curiosities and questions. Where did this kid find it? Who made it? What’s going on? Those are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking as the short film unravels.
Produced and released under the moniker TWIN (because the Bakers are twins), Bag Man’s minimalism communicates to the viewer that the boy’s discovery is new, unexplored. When faced with a life or death situation, both for himself and the titular bag man, the boy compartmentalizes the situation and uses the weapon against the trio of thugs who want to kill them.
The short gamifies violence comfortable in franchises like Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, or Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2. The men trying to kill the boy and the bag man become aggressive enemy types who cease to be human before they are reduced to literal ashes. The aftermath is left unexplored and intentionally so.
Bag Man’s creative design and conceptual production was the responsibility of an Australian design company called Supervixen. Frequent collaborators with the Bakers, Supervixen was asked to, “Design a gun, make it cool, make it different.”
The design philosophy behind alien rifle was an attempt to balance a look that suggested inhumanity, but with the possibility that it was the tech that existed in our world. It couldn’t be too old, or too new, and the result was a final concept that landed somewhere in the middle and allowed for iteration. The production process of the short film garnered the attention of Legacy Effects (Pacific Rim, Iron Man, Avatar), who aided Supervixen in the physical prop production of the BNR.
The Bakers considered pursuing the feature film route with Bag Man, but it was never a sure thing. They also considered turning the story into a comic book series, relying on animation and comic book artist Andie Tong (TRON: Betrayal, Spectacular Spider-Man) to visualize the broader strokes of the world behind the gun the boy finds. It looked interesting, but the idea was all but abandoned.
Enter Michael B. Jordan. A friend of their friend, co-writer Daniel Casey, Jordan had come across the short and took a vested interest in seeing their feature film idea come to life.
He contacted Casey, sending him what was effectively a Bag Man reaction video, which convinced the Bakers to work with him. And while I’m speculating, I can only imagine the mere concept of Black and Brown folk from another dimension stoked Jordan as much it does myself.
While promoting Jordan’s involvement in KIN would’ve drawn in a bigger audience, his cameo appearance and Executive Producer credit were intentionally kept secret until the opening weekend of the film.
Jordan and the Bakers didn’t want his presence to overshadow the film’s lead or the story and sought to surprise the audience. That obviously worked against them. Jordan’s role, while inelegant in its communication, and a definitely in need of a dialog trim (which makes me wonder what the alternate takes look like), is hardly the disaster most make it out to be.
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER HIM
Think about who Eli is as a character. […]He’s never had that sense of belonging in where he is, so to drop on him at the end of the film that, not only is he being looked after in a sense, but this is pretty much your older brother, so you have blood somewhere else, even in another dimension. […]That was really important for us, to make Eli go from someone who has never really felt connection to having this future. — Josh Baker
KIN follows the story of Elijah “Eli” Solinski (Myles Truitt in his first role), a fourteen-year-old living in Detroit, Michigan. When Elijah comes across the bodies of aliens in a vacant factory, their true nature is lost on him. He takes an interest in one of their weapons but is scared off when a dying alien tries to grab him. But like any curious kid, Elijah returns to the scene of the incident to find the alien remains gone, but recovers the weapon the cleanup crew left behind.
The completion of Bag Man incentivized the Bakers to further develop the origin point of the BNR and where the short story elements could go in a new direction. They weren’t interested in making a duplication of Bag Man, merely build on its ideas. Collaborating with screenwriter Daniel Casey, the Bakers shift the environment from Harlem, New York to Detroit, Michigan. KIN recreates the nameless boy from the short film while maintaining much of his markers.
Elijah is the foundation of the story and his introduction smartly uses little dialog to establish who he is through a montage that communicates a comfortable routine, a life lived. Elijah is an introvert. He observes plenty but says little, but he’s forthright about his opinions and doesn’t hesitate to question his elders.
From a young age, Elijah was defined by his father Harold’s (Dennis Quaid) rigid morality, which is represented in his role as a construction worker rebuilding a broken Detroit. Do the right thing or go to jail. Harold’s not a soft character, arguing to his impressionable son, “If I’m hard on you, it’s because the world is hard. You’ve seen that.” His father’s logic is debatable and demoralizing for a teenager struggling with abrupt change.
Still, Elijah wants to do the right thing and follows his father’s lead. That becomes a problem when he discovers the Block-Nosed Rifle and his brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) is released from prison. Neither are positive forces in his life, but Jimmy’s amorality threatens to upend Harold’s tough-love parenting.
A bit of a nerd, Elijah indulges in old anime like Bubblegum Crisis, and shamelessly imagines himself a tough-guy in the mirror (protecting his family). The desire for new shoes, unsupported by his father’s small allowance, sees Elijah gutting old warehouses of wire and scrap metal to sell for money.
How Elijah reacts in different circumstances is communicated mostly through body language or expression. The audience is never struggling to understand Elijah, and it’s a testament to Truitt’s ability as an actor to communicate his emotions so succinctly without dialog.
Casey argues that because KIN is a little more grounded than its sci-fi contemporaries, audiences might assume Elijah’s adoption from a shelter and the scar on his hand is a marker of abandonment and abuse. While one character certainly makes that assumption, Elijah never assigns a negative or positive history to the scar. It could be biological or an injury. He can only assume it’s a product of his biological parents.
The boy in Bag Man was the son of a single Black mother, whose father died. Their dynamic is disconnected, likely strained by the death of the father. Elijah is the adopted son of a white Polish family living in Hamtramck, a predominantly Polish and Muslim neighborhood.
When Elijah’s mother dies (of unspecified causes), he’s fairly rattled by her passing. Repeated assurances from Harold that he loves him does little to avail his feelings of alienation and displacement.
Elijah admits to Jimmy that he doesn’t talk to other kids in his school. Those same children bully him despite their lack of connection. He doesn’t have a social life that would permit a [high school] sweetheart. His interactions with others are awkward, utilitarian. Jimmy proudly brands him an outsider, but Elijah’s discomfort makes clear he doesn’t consider it a badge of pride.
The absence of his biological family is not a point of fascination for Elijah. When he asked, he shrugs about it. They’re ghosts to him. He’s grieving the mother that raised him, the woman he became attached to.
The audience asks who he is without their roots, and the film answers: “Someone very important.”
King Arthur isn’t an obvious influence for a genre film like KIN. The bog-standard sci-fi video game influences are clear. The design of the gun and the aliens invites more than a few comparisons to games featuring space marines and sentient robots using blocky weaponry.
That the Bakers say KIN is a twist on the Arthurian myth invites the question of which version was their inspiration, but I don’t think it matters. KIN is a reimagining of King Arthur in the same way Hideki Kamiya’s Devil May Cry is a retelling Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Very loosely and in ways that don’t confine it to the inspiration’s narrative.
The iconography of the Arthurian myth is there. Elijah is the orphan king raised by a humble family. The BNR is weapon Excalibur, an object of power that could change a kid’s life for good or ill. In both Bag Man and KIN, the owl represents Archimedes and the ever-present guardianship of the dead father, Elijah’s moral compass.
The film is relatively subtle about alluding to the fact that Elijah is an alien. The elements that tie Elijah and the Cleaners together are not immediately apparent. Elijah is our protagonist, the Cleaners are the mysterious secondary antagonists. The Cleaners try to erase any trace of their existence on Earth, Elijah risks exposing them with the BNR. They are far behind in the pursuit of Elijah and Jimmy, but patiently narrowing gap bookended by the thugs who killed Elijah’s father. The Bakers argue animals notice his otherness (that he’s not a natural part of the ecosystem), but that’s never properly explored in the film.
The rifle responding only to Elijah and closing itself to others is an obvious giveaway, but one that could be interpreted as Arthurian black and white morality (Elijah good, Jimmy bad). Then we learn its purely tech driven (and it’s hard not to ask why children are given tech that controls weapons). One of the Cleaners call to Elijah by name in a dream, and Elijah stresses that he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. All of it is soundly woven into the script, but in way that doesn’t break the narrative.
The Bakers pepper the film with smaller details that can only be appreciated in retrospect (and listening to the audio commentary). The first time you see the glowing symbol on Elijah’s hand, it’s a tattoo on Milly’s (Zoe Kravitz) right arm. The one way sign pointing upward outside the abandoned factory where the BNR is found foreshadows the endpoint of Elijah’s journey. Bubblegum Crisis alludes to the two armored riders on motorcycles, and the B-movie Teenagers from Outer Space plays in the corner of a motel as a teenage alien and his human brother haggle for a room. It’s not big or in your face, it’s simply present for the more observant audience.
The expectation of audiences who may assume family drama lay at the heart of Elijah’s missing parents aren’t completely in the wrong. It’s just not an anti-Black abuse narrative. Instead, Elijah is a bonafide extraterrestrial Moses.
Elijah’s importance isn’t tied to a system of English monarchy or imperialism. The weapon isn’t a symbol of Chosen One-ness, but a marker of his roots. Elijah is a kid sent away from a war zone, given the opportunity to be a kid someplace else. He’s got two families genuinely invested in his well being, protecting him in their own way.
How you walk away from and come back to KIN largely depends on whether or not you like the way the script pulls together the strings of Elijah’s story to complete his arc.
THE TROUBLE WITH FAMILY
[…]We took the boy, the bag, and the weapon, and crafted a story that was the most interesting to us. A movie about family, and the relationship between two brothers who could not be more different. — The Feature Film
KIN’s dedication to its central theme is its greatest strength. The circumstances that nurture different family bonds is reinforced visually within a slow-to-recover Detroit’s ghost or low-income neighborhoods. The remnants of gentrification and white flight set the tone and mood of the story.
Working-class residents of Detroit represent fractured or corrupted family units of some sort. Elijah standing at the grave of his mother against a ruined factory illustrates this best. The script, rooted in the bonds of brotherhood, is vested in the peaks and valleys of family dynamics but it never becomes melodramatic or cloyingly perfect about it.
Taylor and Dutch Balik (James Franco and Gavin Fox) are contrast against Elijah and Jimmy Solinski. The Baliks are a united front, partners in violence and extortion of their community in and outside of prison. Dutch stabbing a kid in the ear (six times) to reclaim a stolen Walkman is a fond memory for Taylor, his transition to manhood. While morally bankrupt and exploitative, they are not denied familial love. However, they’re hardly affectionate with each other. Their emotional distance establishes Dutch as the muscle to Taylor’s naked intimidation.
The Balik Brothers are unreasonable men. Their expectation of $60,000 upon Jimmy’s release from prison is absurd but gives them the excuse to flaunt their power. Murdering Harold is work, impersonal. Taylor misfiring and killing his brother instead of Jimmy is personal. Their dynamic is so stunted, Taylor is incapable of showing any affection to Dutch until his brother is dying and dead.
Taylor refuses to take responsibility for his actions. He commits wholly to killing the Solinki brothers, painting himself a victim of Jimmy. If KIN were a true 80s movie, the Bakers argue, Taylor’s vendetta against the Solinski’s would make him the protagonist. Taylor’s final words, “The things we do for brothers, huh?”, are turned back on him when the Cleaners save Jimmy and kill him with his own bullet.
Elijah’s family is less about blood relations and focuses more on trust earned by people who respect his personhood. Within his immediate family, Elijah is not as close with Harold and Jimmy as he could be. The arrest of his brother broke their unit when Elijah was only eight. Their bond deteriorates more with the death of his mother. She remains out of focus, unnamed, and a short-hand to illustrate how poorly the Solinski men communicate with each other. Her memory is often used as a means to provoke an emotional reaction during arguments or shame each other into silence.
While Elijah respects Harold, he’s not honest about everything that goes on in his life. Elijah doesn’t think scrapping is a theft. Harold scares him into reconsidering, asking if he should call the police if he won’t apologize to the real estate owners who bought the old factories. Frustrated with his tough-love approach, Elijah dismisses Harold’s efforts to prepare him for the world. His father’s lessons become unfortunate truth after Elijah learns of his death and faces the sobering reality about his brother. He’s kind of a walking trash can.
Jimmy’s isolation from his family, thanks to years of bad decisions, reintroduces Elijah to an emotionally stunted 28-year-old who acts before he thinks. The inhumane conditions of prison saw Jimmy pushed further toward criminality to survive. Once released, he’s left with little choice but to perpetuate the same actions that landed him in jail or allow loan sharks to kill his family.
Elijah wants to trust Jimmy despite their father’s warnings to be careful around him. The caution he displays drops immediately at Jimmy’s obvious pride in Elijah’s side-hustle (and moreso when he learns Elijah was expelled from school). Jimmy’s makes (racially insensitive) jokes at dinner to endear himself to his brother, and it works well enough that Elijah is visibly uncomfortable with Harold’s disapproval.
Harold’s refusal to consent to Jimmy stealing from his construction job to satisfy Taylor and Dutch’s debt sees Jimmy do what’s all too common in families who adopt after having children. He angrily dismisses Elijah as a replacement kid Harold used to erase his existence. Jimmy exacerbates Elijah’s fears about his standing in the family despite Harold making it clear his eldest son is his greatest disappointment.
Jimmy’s role in Harold’s death becomes worse when he runs off with the $60,000 Taylor planned to steal from his father. Elijah becomes the target of Taylor, whose promise to kill him in a twisted fair trade for losing Dutch, traps him in the feedback loop of Jimmy’s poor decision making.
Jimmy can’t fix the damage he caused, so he manipulates a suspicious Elijah into leaving Detroit. The pretense of a road trip saves Elijah’s life, but Jimmy’s self-preservation keeps him ignorant about Harold. Jimmy’s unwillingness to take responsibility for what happened allows him to play the cool big brother for a short time.
The mistake sees Elijah provide Taylor all the information he needs to find them. Jimmy’s desire to forget inspires a lack of security, forethought. He doesn’t notice Elijah’s call to Harold’s cell. Elijah, for all his suspicion, doesn’t question Jimmy’s tales of talking to Harold. It’s entirely believable because any kid in Elijah’s position would take his brother at his word.
Elijah’s attempts to better understand the fractious relationship between Harold and Jimmy get deflected. Jimmy resorts to self-loathing, drinking himself into a stupor. For every moment that shows Elijah and Jimmy’s growing closeness, the lie remains at the forefront.
The damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dynamic at play tinges what is otherwise genuine love and affection growing between the brothers. The minute Jimmy discovers the alien rifle, he capitalizes on its power. He puts Elijah’s life in danger, too inundated by criminality to realize his “normal” is unhealthy for a child shielded from violence.
The reconstruction of their relationship, barely formed before Jimmy’s six-year prison stint, and its inevitable breakdown is an encapsulation of Jimmy’s inability to respect the trust he earns from others. His repeated failures to act as the adult pushes Elijah to take his father’s life lessons on more proactively than he should.
Jimmy knows he’s a shitty person. That doesn’t absolve him of anything, but it shows he wants to hold himself accountable for his actions. By this point, however, Jimmy can’t run from his problems, Elijah has thoroughly shamed him, and his efforts are thwarted by circumstance. Elijah’s trust in Jimmy is fractured, but he does the opposite of Harold. He isn’t against giving him another chance. Jimmy is literally the only family he has left on Earth.
The counterbalance to Jimmy’s destructive tendencies lies with Milly, a sex worker looking to escape a strip-bar run by your atypical movie pimp who loves the word “bitch”. She shares similar traits with Jimmy in the sense that she is self-preservation first and not above robbing armed men or two odd brothers she just met.
But unlike Jimmy, Milly knows how to navigate crooks. Despite her suspicions of Jimmy, she forms a fast friendship with Elijah. She empathizes with his feelings of alienation, comfortable enough to open up about the abusive family home she escaped as a teenager. She considers him a fellow survivor of harsh circumstances.
When they’re arrested in Nevada, Milly leaves Elijah and Jimmy behind. Elijah’s empathy sees him understand her decision instead of feeling betrayed. Elijah’s trust is repaid when his brother is sent back to prison and Milly serendipitously reappears, poised to fill the vacant position of guardianship.
Elijah’s life, torn asunder by Jimmy, is further complicated by the Cleaners (Lily Gao and Michael B. Jordan). In a fashion similar to Jimmy, Elijah’s nameless (biological) brother tries to endear himself to his little brother. He alludes that they’ve watched over Elijah since before the events of the film. The aerial shots following Elijah through Detroit and later, across the country, show their voyeurism was a constant (which would probably explain why assassins knew where to look for him).
For Elijah, it’s evident that the Cleaners’ presence, or the reveal of his true nature, doesn’t hold the same significance for him as a kid who grew up under the Solinski family’s care. Elijah’s brother doesn’t care for Jimmy, only preventing his death because Elijah asks them to. He considers his relation to Elijah stronger than whatever might come of his relationship with Jimmy in the aftermath of their chaotic road trip.
Their existence saddles Elijah with questions they have no time to answer. It also can’t be ignored that once he’s old enough, he’ll be asked to take part in the conflict that preoccupies his alien brethren. If you’re not looking it at from the framework of a sprawling space adventure like The Last Starfighter, it’s not a bright future waiting for him.
THE UNDERSTATED THROWBACK
We are 80’s kids since we were born in the late 70’s. We definitely got into a lot of those wish fulfillment type of films that have young protagonists that find some McGuffin that changes everything up. — Jonathan Baker
KIN is a film that lives comfortably in the present. It’s not a bizarre timeline that lives in a limbo where the populist eighties never ended, but time marched onward to create the universes found in It Follows and Monster House. Despite how it was advertised, it’s not in the vein of Matt and Ross Duffer’s Stranger Things. It’s not a period pierce so reliant on the iconography of 80s pop culture (not present in its particular period) that removing those elements means erasing its identity.
KIN’s send-ups to the Baker Brothers’ childhood is a controlled aesthetic. It doesn’t make up half or most of the film’s content or presentation. Restraint of nostalgia allows the film to wear its influences on its sleeve in a way that doesn’t pollute its narrative.
The premise of a kid and the discovery of a MacGuffin of carries world-altering consequences is a story foundation that predates the 1980s sci-fi genre itself (hello again, King Arthur). The film does not idealize Elijah as a cute, wide-eyed dreamer in search of intelligent life in space. He’s a grounded teenager that likes exploring vacant buildings, and wants to get through the day without fighting with his family or his classmates.
KIN’s road-trip adventure takes deliberate inspiration from The Terminator, and to some degree, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The Judgement Day arcade machine revisits the gamification of violence in the hands of a child armed with a gun. Taylor and the Cleaners’ pursuit of Elijah and Jimmy, in conjunction with a showdown in the police station, casts them as the Terminators.
It’s a stretch, but the bright neon purples and pink of the strip bar (The Miner’s Daughter) could easily be the TechNoir from The Terminator. The light illuminates the toxic environment in the romanticized colors of synthwave and vaporwave, concluding with first time Elijah actually fires the NBR to save his brother. The film’s climax culminates in a county named Sulaco (after the United States Marine battleship in Aliens).
But, within the context of the film, a lot of this is and will be invisible to the audience at large, and even the ones who engage in memorizing genre trivialities. The references to Aliens and Terminator were lost on me until listening to the audio commentary. That’s how well I believe the film could take its nostalgia and remix it into something functionally present-tense.
Driving home the film’s understated nostalgia is the film’s composer, Scottish post-rock group, Mogwai. Where Mogwai’s score for KIN could’ve slipped into a nostalgic recreation of 80s synth by artists like Perturbator or The Midnight, it’s instead an evolution of the sound I first heard in Wicker Park (“I Know You Are But What Am I?”) and mistook as Cliff Martinez’s score.
KIN is a mood piece score that embodies Eli’s disconnect from the world around him, and the contemplation of his family throughout the film. The score plays to Eli’s dynamic with the disruptive Jimmy, calm rebounding against haste (as heard in “Flee”), evolving into a combination of the brothers’ individual strengths and weaknesses in themes like “Donuts”, “Guns Down”, and “Miscreants”.
The score shifts following the introduction of Eli’s extraterrestrial protectors. Isolated from Eli, the low droning that represents the Cleaners’ theme invokes Brad Fiedel’s T-1000 theme without ever duplicating its particular notes.
Reunited with Eli, the Cleaners’ perceived malice gives way to a resonant synth solo piano piece (“KIN”) that grows into this emotional banger that, when accompanied with the film, embodies the shift in responsibility for Eli once he’s surrounded by his surviving family.
The film doesn’t ring the bell the and ask you if you recognize any of what you’re seeing or hearing. Knowing about it doesn’t detract from the story of KIN. They’re blink-and-you-miss-it instances of homage that are background noise to its greater story.
KIN could’ve languished in Spielberg-isims like 2011’s Super 8. Made the entire film about the spectacle of militarized aliens on Earth, and thrown in some tired post-9/11 military paranoia for good measure. It could’ve ended with a crowd of people staring up at a spaceship in awe as it flies away. But, it stays the course of minimalism, and never loses focus of its identity.
A KID WITH A GUN
This movie is about choices and choosing your own future. The whole way through the film, we’re taking him down a bad road on purpose. […]It’s about Eli choosing which way he wants to take, and what kind of man he wants to become. — Jonathan Baker
One of the oddest accusations of KIN I saw prior to its release was from a Black user on tumblr angrily paragraphing about the image of Elijah wielding the BNR, framed by the neon entrance of the bar where he meets Milly. The official still above (which was not the point of argument) presents a rather semi-confident kid armed with a rifle, but the film shows Elijah is terrified out of his mind. When the rifle goes off by accident, he looks ready to drop it like a hot potato.
The argument, to paraphrase, went a little like this: “I’m tired of [watching] [sci-fi] films that criminalize young [Black] boys!” And they followed it up with a glowing endorsement of A Wrinkle in Time (their definition of “Black sci-fi Done Right” ¬_¬). At the time I read the post, it maybe had about a hundred notes. I otherwise assumed that KIN contributed to the issue, that the user saw the film, so I nodded and kept scrolling.
When I eventually watched the film, I was baffled by the reach in logic the user made (clearly without seeing the film). I’m embarrassed to have agreed with the post, and a review that dislocated its shoulder blade to call KIN a “confusing sci-fi version of Breaking Bad”, whilst showing author paid little attention to the film itself.
KIN neither characterizes Elijah as a thug or criminalizes him. His wielding the BNR doesn’t paint him in that light. Even when helping his brother and Milly rob the pimp of the strip-bar to reclaim $60,000, Elijah’s moral alignment in the narrative is clear and contrasted against his brother’s general amorality and Milly’s grey area morality.
Every character with a criminal background in the film is a grown white man. His interactions with the police when arrested are innocuous. He’s more or less considered a hostage of his brother, his innocence is presumed. They label Jimmy the guilty party without fail.
KIN’s commentary on gun violence is standard. They’re destructive weapons, the final arbiter of any situation where demands aren’t met. They’re also the only thing that save Elijah or Jimmy when faced with certain death. Elijah is a non-violent kid unless provoked. He’s reluctant to use the BNR when faced with a violent situation but is rarely given another choice if it means saving himself, his brother, or Milly.
By the end of the film, Elijah doesn’t hesitate to use the weapon in defense. Taylor and his thugs make it clear they’re going to kill everyone he knows. Elijah is the only one with the power to stop them, quite literally, dead. The BNR is destructive, and is rightfully taken away from Elijah, but only after he’s wiped out the thugs stalking them. Most of Elijah’s interactions with the weapon before the bar scene and the climax consist of Elijah curiously exploring in its three modes.
Charles Pulliam-Moore’s 2014 article for i09, The Short That Inspired Kin Is a Complicated Exploration of Being Black and the Symbolic Power of Guns, argues that Bag Man’s exploration into how the power dynamics of a gun translates in the hands of a Black teen is loaded and complicated. His heroism is mired by the fact that he vaporized living people, but his discretion makes his power explicit.
Pullman argues Bag Man’s narrative choices became ironic following the death of Tamir Rice two months later in November. He also believes that it missed an opportunity to explore how a weapon deified by a white supremacist society becomes inherently negative in the hands of anyone who isn’t white.
Neither KIN nor Bag Man tries to position their narratives around the discussion surrounding the criminalization of Black children. The commentary of the Bag Man and KIN has less to do with the anti-Blackness that gives white power structures unspoken license-to-kill, and lies more in the familial wish-fulfillment hidden behind a futuristic rifle never used outside the specifics of defense.
The questions that bushwhack the viewer in the aftermath won’t be about how the society at large will react to a Black child with an alien weapon, but where the rifle came from, who might be looking for it, and what happens next when those questions are answered.
The idea that KIN or Bag Man perpetuate the Black thug or criminal stereotype because the protagonist is a Black teenage boy armed with a video game gun is absurd. It’s only the kind of argument you can make if you deliberately choose not to engage the film’s narrative.
WE’RE NOT DONE…?
[…]The short answer is yes; the longer, more complicated answer is so much of this is out of our control. This is an original sci-fi story that a lot of people have been asking for for a long time, and if they don’t support it then further installments will never get made. — Jonathan Baker
KIN took a reported three years to produce (from 2015 to 2017). It cost an estimated $30 million to produce and reportedly only grossed $10 million worldwide. Like most budget films in its circumstance, it was poorly promoted by its distributor (Summit Entertainment, a subsidiary of Lionsgate) and marketed even worse to the general public who only seemed aware Dennis Quaid, Zoe Kravitz, and James Franco were starring in the film.
Summit Entertainment largely depended on the vague proclamations that highlighted that KIN was brought to you by the producers of Stranger Things and The Arrival. Shawn Levy (The Spectacular Now, The Famous Jett Jackson: The Movie), and Dan Cohen (Fist Fight, The Spectacular Now) of 21 Laps Entertainment.
While the trailers and TV Spots were fairly cut-and-dry about what the film was about (brothers being hunted by a pair of aliens and a group of thugs), while hyping up the brief action sequences, the promotional posters for the film were confused or non-committal.
This is particularly telling when one of the first posters made for the film — designed by a company named LA — comes with the tagline “All he needed was a way out” at the very bottom of a silhouetted Myles Truitt. Its presentation isn’t dissimilar to a novel that has its Black protagonist obscured by silhouette. The tagline hardly communicates what the film could be about, but that’s fairly remedied by the first trailer, released a day after the poster.
While Truitt is unobscured in the next poster designed by LA, it features an equally baffling tagline (“Some things aren’t meant to be found”), which might give you the impression that the film is a sci-fi horror in the vein of, pardon my reference, Josh Trank’s Chronicle (which starred Michael B. Jordan).
The tagline from French poster company, RYSK, proudly proclaims KIN: Le Commencement (The Beginning) — its title in France — is “The New Saga” (Le Nouvelle Saga). It further titillates the audience with established 80s aesthetic in a faux watercolor style meant to imitate the works of renowned artist, Drew Struzan. You’re left with more questions than answers about its theme and plot, but it’s clear someone within the production company watched the film from beginning-to-end and assumed this was going to be a series.
The final theatrical poster for KIN, also designed by LA, finally nails the film’s theme with a proper tagline: “No Force is Stronger than Family”. It maintains the Struzan aesthetic RYSK promoted in its own poster for the film, but with a clearer implication of what it is about.
KIN was certainly not for want of industry support when considering who its executive producers were. Michael B. Jordan is the reason KIN got made at all. Summit Entertainment, I figure, wasn’t so unsure who this film could be marketed to, so much as they didn’t want to put the marketing power behind it. So it languished. A different kind of gatekeeping from the type Julia Hart discussed when describing the uphill battle she faced trying to get Fast Color marketed to the general audience.
If the film had been promoted with its final poster as opposed its earlier iterations, I imagine there would’ve been something the general audience could’ve held onto in terms of a solid concept. Instead, the poster comes late in the film’s minimal promotion run in July. Not a lot of time or breathing room considering its late August release.
There’s an undercurrent in the criticism of KIN that suggests the film “doesn’t know what it wants to be”. But that seems to stem more from audience expectation than the Bakers being confused about which genre the film is in. It’s unquestionably a science fiction film about a teenage alien, it’s also a drama about two estranged brothers (one of whom is a criminal). Neither genre cancels each other out. Elijah’s fictional otherness isn’t afterthought in the plot considering it’s the reason the story happens at all.
Regardless, word-of-mouth (if there was any) was not wholly positive and to say it was a “box office” and “critical” failure is an understatement. It’ll be a long time coming before it makes its $30 million back, if ever.
KIN, Captive State, and Fast Color were criticized for the way their stories end. There’s the implication of more. The constant complaint I see used as a negative of the films is that, “This could’ve been a television show instead of a movie.”
Broadcast or streaming, I’m confident none of these stories would’ve survived a hypothetical first season if that was their first avenue. The Get Down is dead for a reason and On My Block struggled to get a third season while Stranger Things keeps trucking despite diminishing returns. (I don’t expect Raising Dion, the other Michael B. Jordan produced property, to survive its first gauntlet.)
The idea that every film, whether it ends conclusively or not, needs to be serialized is woeful. A film can just be a singular film and leave you with that one story. Diminishing returns is really the only guarantee with prolonged continuation. Despite the clear implication that “there is more to our stories”, none of the films mentioned are so incomplete that they become terrible experiences in the aftermath.
Fast Color is getting television series (thanks to Viola Davis), but it still works as a one-shot film. KIN and Captive State have all been but forgotten since their theatrical and home video releases, but the same can be said of them as well. The fact that any of them were even made and released theatrically is something of a miracle I can appreciate.
I like the idea of KIN continuing its story, sure, but I’m also uneasy about what might’ve come next. I’m content enough with the story the Baker Brothers and Daniel Casey told that, even with the certainty of sequel never happening, I can watch the movie repeatedly without the slightest disappointment. It’s a solid drama, and it’s a solid sci-fi film.
I hope people give it another chance as the years roll on.