Written by Kim Morrison
The Ascent (2019), also known as Stairs and Black Ops, is a British horror movie that follows a special ops squad lovingly named Hell’s Bastards. The squad are sent into the middle of a civil war in Europe to kill everyone in a camp and retrieve any intel they find on-site before sneaking out again, unnoticed.
Things go well at first, with the squad killing all the enemy soldiers with ease. However, when they find a young woman handcuffed inside a tent, there’s tension over what to do with her. It’s unclear why she’s being held prisoner, but the only thing she tells Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler) is “Don’t go down.” Stanton (Shayne Ward) believes that orders are orders, and therefore she should be killed without a second thought. While Clarke is initially hesitant to kill a civilian, she eventually bows to her superior’s orders and shoots the woman in the head.
After an apparent attack from enemy soldiers, the squad flee to the rescue helicopter and make their escape. Back in the UK, the team arrive at their headquarters ready for their debrief. When the lift breaks down, the team are forced to take the stairs, and that’s when things start to go very wrong.
The staircase appears to be neverending, and after a significant period climbing, the squad realises that something had gone wrong. If a member of the team attempts to climb back down the stairs, or they hang about for too long on one floor, they’re treated to an ominous red light and a Silent Hill-style (2006) alarm before someone typically meets their end.
They soon discover the key to the whole thing is the young woman who Clarke killed at the camp, and with the emergency exit door on each floor leading to a portal to the past, the squad are given a chance to put things right and save themselves from this fate.
What follows is the squad playing the opening scene of the film over and over again as they desperately try to change their actions now that they know better. And to be honest, this is why the film ends up with a 102-minute runtime when it really could have done with being a little bit shorter. While we get to see the future versions of the squad enacting various plans to see if they can change past events, most of the shots of from the past are the exact same used in the opening scene. Even the camera angles stay the same, meaning these scenes get very boring very quickly when really these should be the most tense sections of the film.
Other time travel horror movies like Triangle (2009) are a much better example of how to show the same action over and over again without it getting dull, and instead show us how all the overlapping events interconnect to give us the final outcome. From the first time the squad go back in time, we see that their action was already part of the opening scene, and therefore, the odds of them changing anything are very unlikely unless they come up with a drastic plan.
As far as villains go, The Prisoner (Julia Szamalek), doesn’t really add anything new to the genre. With her long white dress and her lank hair hanging over her face, she gives off strong Ring (1998) or Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) vibes. The intel which the squad stole from the camp gives us a little background on the character, but it doesn’t really explain who she is or what her powers are. Rather than feeling purposeful and mysterious, it just feels like the filmmakers didn’t put a lot of thought into The Prisoner, and were more concerned with giving her a recognisable creepy aesthetic than a solid reason for existing.
When it comes to the squad, they’re a hard bunch to like. Stanton is the worst of the bunch and clearly doesn’t have any respect for anything except his orders. We’re given hints into a backstory involving his brother which perhaps made him this much a stickler for the rules, but the film doesn’t delve into it far enough to produce any sympathy for the character and his actions.
Even Clarke, our protagonist, is very morally questionable. I thought the opening scene was going to go similarly to Cooper being asked to shoot a dog at the start of Dog Soldiers (2002). However, Clarke shoots the unarmed prisoner without much of an argument and then pouts about her actions for the rest of the film as if she wasn’t directly involved. She seems to want to change her ways and doesn’t completely agree with everything she has to do as a soldier. But let’s face it, she doesn’t actually start to do anything about it until her squad start to die, and she’s facing a direct threat herself.
I understand that the squad need to have a character arc where they recognise the direct consequences of their actions without being blinded by the fact that it’s their job. Still, I don’t think the film does a good enough job of making them likeable or relatable enough for that storyline to land fully.
I also wish they had gone in a lot harder with the death scenes. Considering how many people end up dying, most of the deaths are either people getting shot during the war scenes or squad members killing themselves off-screen before The Prisoner can get them, which felt a little disappointing. The Ascent isn’t afraid to show blood and violence when it comes to people dying during the war, so I wish they had doubled down with the staircase deaths as well.
Overall, I think the concept for The Ascent is an interesting one. Much like Triangle, it was fun watching the squad work their way through different scenarios in order to find the one that would give them the outcome they needed. However, they could have trimmed down a lot of the repetition of the less critical action that we really didn’t need to see over and over again.
The Ascent has a lot of potential, but it needed to give us more depth to our characters, The Prisoner included, and edit down a lot of the repetition to create a more enjoyable film.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5