The Ascent (aka Black Ops, aka Stairs) (2019)

Like many a psychological thriller, The Ascent (aka Black Ops, aka Stairs) features a primal scene that it visits at the film’s beginning, and then revisits and revises numerous times during the course of its characters’ journey towards a reckoning. In an Eastern European war zone, a British special ops squad of six – Will Stanton (Shayne Ward), Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler), Ben Garrett (Bentley Kalu), Jack Ford (Toby Osmond), Hayley Nolan (Alana Wallace) and Carter Harris (Spencer Collings) – ruthlessly takes out a unit of local soldiers, and retreats under fire to their pickup point. On the way, Clarke reluctantly shoots dead a civilian female captive (Julia Szamalek) on orders from Stanton – and they all, again on orders, fail to intervene as a family of three is murdered by locals. It is a hellish war scenario, wherein, as Clarke concedes, “we’re no better” than the local militias. 

Extracted by helicopters, and back in the UK by dusk, the six and their three pilots head into the stairs for a debrief on the top floor – but never get there. The stairs seem to stretch infinitely upwards, and with the female captive’s final words (“Don’t go down”) still resonating, the soldiers realise that something dark, monstrous and deadly is coming up after them, and that the door on each floor is a portal that leads directly, if temporarily, back to the scene of their raid earlier that morning. Increasingly exhausted and terrified, this squad must confront who they are and what they have done, and seek some kind of redemption before it is too late. 

“You’ve seen Back to the Future 2, right?,” says Ford, upon hearing Clarke’s suggestion that they should all work to stop past-Stanton ordering past-Clarke to shoot the captive. It is a self-conscious moment, but then, this latest film from Tom Paton (Redwood, 2017; Black Site, 2018) is deeply reflexive. For not only is this a looping nightmare marked by endless repetitions and recursions, but it also re-echoes the Moebian staircase from Isaac Ezban’s The Incident (2014) – a limbo-like transitory space in which characters become trapped. The difference is that the concrete stairwell in Paton’s film rings hollow with the questionable morality of war, as these highly trained yet haunted men and women are forced, step by bloody step, either to retrace and reiterate past sins or, somehow, to rectify them.

Repetition, of course, can be a drag on a story’s momentum, and as we watch this team go round and round in ever ascending circles, the narrative economy dwindles somewhat along with their numbers – yet the stakes are higher and more urgently immediate here than they ever were in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), as these characters race against both the clock and the very physical limits of their bodies’ abilities, in order to undo past crimes against (their own) humanity. Best of all, in a film where “It’ll never stop” is a recurring line, the ethical dilemmas which The Ascent presents are never, in any straightforward way, resolved.

© Anton Bitel