The Ascent, 2020.
Directed by Tom Paton.
Starring Rachel Warren, Toby Osmond, Shayne Ward, Simon Meacock, Sophie Austin, Samantha Schnitzler, Bentley Kalu, Alana Wallace, and Spencer Collings.
Special ops squad “Hell’s Bastards” are sent to infiltrate a civil war to retrieve intel. The unit soon find themselves trapped on a never-ending stairwell forced to climb or die. To survive, they must revisit their past sins if they ever want to get off.
Stairs. Satan’s architectural pleasure. We climb towards our destination one dug-in platform at a time, huffing and puffing the farther we proceed. Imagine if that ascension never ended, and you’ve got – in a sense – Tom Paton’s The Ascent. Of all the ways cinema has represented purgatory, Paton’s Sisyphean portrayal hits upon both monotony and torture by issuing a prime directive. “Up” offers hope, “Down” assures death. It’s simplistic, but as the film’s military squadron ponders how to save their souls from eternal cardio exercising, maybe a bit too simplistic as soldiers must weigh their past sins heavily to release themselves from an otherwise repetitive fate.
An elite special operatives team dubbed “Hell’s Bastards” have a simple mission: collect data amidst a civil war, leave no survivors. Prisoners included. Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler) pushes back against orders but ultimately pulls the trigger on a hostage. After the Bastards reach extraction, transports unload at a base-like complex. One problem: the elevator isn’t working. Easy fix, take the stairs. Such a seemingly inconsequential choice that seals the fates of Hell’s Bastards as they find themselves reliving their last mission in some time-loop punishment gauntlet.
It’s not that Paton’s screenplay has nothing to say. The Ascent is about war crimes; innocent lives caught between feuding factions. From the minute Kia fires under protest, we understand why Hell’s Bastards will be held accountable. Ruthless commander Will Stanton (Shayne Ward) barks execution orders with no regard for mercy, highlighting the repulsive realities of combat. Men corrupted by power, blindly listening to passed-down objectives, abandoning any sense of humanity. Well, the Bastards erased the wrong loose end this time.
On the neverending staircase, Stanton’s men and women are pursued by “The Mother” (Rachel Warren): a demonic reimagining of their deceased prisoner. One by one, whenever someone straggles behind as the staircase lights turn red to instigate movement upward, “Mother” claims another victim. It’s impossible to mix messages, yet The Ascent still includes doubters and internal quarreling despite the very supernatural elements on display. Stanton’s screaming about their predicament being a training scenario or the countless failed attempts at stopping their past-selves from headshot finality. It becomes more generic in this regard, rehashing the same saddened conversations about military confliction through a lens that says nothing new despite sci-fi horror circumstances.
Cinematography and colorization do their part in signifying whatever worlds the Bastards may reside between. Whenever Kia’s forced to rewatch herself kill “The Mother” from afar, a cold, dampened blue filter lays a monochromatic malaise over her group’s doomed mission. Whenever “The Mother” appears, red alarm lights wash over the staircase. Visual storytelling doesn’t mince intent but struggles to be enough given the somewhat restricting location of a stairwell coupled with an otherwise by-the-books interpretation of collateral damage. It’s never about Paton’s message lacking poignancy, but it’s more how Paton “words” his metaphor. How something hinged on fantasy elements of middle-realms and paradoxical realities can feel so familiar, and cyclical, is the biggest issue.
Paton does his best to honor the “action” elements of his horror actioner, especially with a lesser budget. Gunshots and overhead missiles have a CGI glisten, but worthy practical effects come into play like when Kia must tend to another’s bleeding wound. Nightvision goggles and first-person shooter viewpoints appear as a lesser Hardcore Henry, and there’s not much choreographed fighting besides close-range bullet pops or mounted machine gun ratta-tat-tats. There are attempts at tactical proficiency, but again, they’re the same recycled notes. A movie like Blood Punch is about different outcomes in the same violent situation, while The Ascent becomes lost in its own non-varietal Groundhog Day premise. Excitement suffers towards the end as a result.
There are engaging ideas and themes to appreciate throughout The Ascent, but the execution isn’t nearly dead-eyed. Tom Paton unites the cruelty of war and the horrors of hellfire banishment, then enacts his campaign against uncalculated violence. Soldiers bound to orders, yet haunted by their conscience. If only the recollection of grim events came with more dread, more paranoia, and less fighting off the inevitable narrative that keeps viewers ten paces ahead of prototypical decisions or motivations. In the end, characters themselves feel like they’re just following orders for the sake of it. Mechanically acting Paton’s plea for a world more compassionate amidst the distressing real-time terrors around us all.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd (@DoNatoBomb).