An ambitious but overly familiar science fiction multiverse story is actually a conduit for faith-based messaging.
“The Shift” dropped into theaters last Friday without much fanfare, a lower-budget dystopian science fiction drama about a man wandering about a harrowing multiverse, where versions of himself give into the temptation of evil deeds exchanged for worldly gains.
It’s got some recognizable stars, including Neal McDonough, aka that guy with piercing blue eyes who often plays the heavy in movies, and Sean Astin, forever Sam Gamgee from the “Lord of the Rings” movies, not to mention “Rudy,” “The Goonies,” etc. The production values are decent and overall the movie has a polished, professional look for something with a tiny fraction of what an MCU movie spends.
Writer/director Brock Heasley expanded this version from his 2017 short film about an Everyman, Kevin Garner (Kristoffer Polaha), who is beset by all sorts of travails across an expansive time-space continuum. We’ve gotten a LOT of these stories in recent years, and this one does little to break the multiverse mold, so watching it can feel like arriving at a party that’s already gone on too long.
It’s possible you could view this entire film and not realize it’s a faith-based production, essentially a variation on the parable of Job, a righteous man upon whom God heaped all sorts of punishment to see if his faith could be shaken. Kevin is a modern-day version who harbors a lot more doubt than you’ll read in the Bible, which is quoted at times (without attribution at first).
Angel Studios also did the streaming series “The Chosen” and is probably best known for picking up the shelved “Sound of Freedom” and turning it into a quarter-billion-dollar international hit.
McDonough plays a mysterious figure called “The Benefactor” who acts as Kevin’s tormentor and chief antagonist. It’s left deliberately vague if he is in fact a supernatural being, possibly Satan himself, or just a corporeal man pulling the levers of an intricate system of technology he uses to “shift” people in and out of alternate realities.
The Benefactor and his minions wear devices on their wrist called deviators that allow them to travel about the time-space continuum and also make others essentially disappear into it. He’s used this to create a reality in which Kevin finds himself estranged from his wife, Molly (Elizabeth Tabish), after the mysterious disappearance of their young son.
The Benefactor confronts Kevin and offers him all the happiness in the world, including reuniting his family, if he’ll serve him. He lets drop that he’s made this deal with a thousand other versions of Kevin before, and all of them took it.
“Let me lift you out of that embarrassing farce you call life and give you something glorious,” the Benefactor coos.
So he’s mightily vexed when this Kevin spurns him. Five years go by, and everything turns for the worse.
It’s a convincingly malevolent reality where all religion is banned, the media have been reduced to pliant mouthpieces for the Benefactor, who rules as dictator, and most everything has been reduced to rubble after a nuclear war. Kevin works as a day laborer while secretly dashing off stories he can recall from scripture and distributing through an underground network with the help of his friend, Gabriel (Astin). Police wearing unnerving white face masks prowl as the stormtrooper-like militia.
Movies are banned, too, so people use Vica-Viewing theaters where they can watch other versions of themselves in the multiverse. John Billingsley plays Russo, the operator of one low-end such cinema, who helps Kevin out from time to time. He becomes convinced from these “Clockwork Orange” like screenings that it’s still possible for him to find “his” Molly and overcome the Benefactor.
There are some cool action scenes and neat twists, including one where Kevin finds himself being chased by multiple versions of the same hunter shifted into this time reality. He also has encounters with other iterations of himself, and finds that they’re generally a pretty loathsome lot.
The movie drags pretty badly in the middle and could use an aggressive paring down from its current running time in the two-hour mark. Some of the confrontation scenes turn into indulgent talk-a-thons, as if the Benefactor could become more intimidating by giving him as many words as possible.
It’s not quite enough to recommend, but if you like a little moralizing with your sci-fi thrills, “The Shift” is competent if overly familiar fare.