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Fall Review: Don't Look Down

  • Effectively tense single-location thriller
  • Will leave you in a pit of anxiety
  • Some surprisingly effective visual effects despite the low budget
  • Very silly third-act twist

If you have a fear of heights, chances are "Fall" will leave you in an anxious state before the characters reach the top of the tower; acrophobia sufferers haven't been put through the wringer this much on the big screen since Tom Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol." However, the masterstroke of British director Scott Mann's film is that the thrills don't lazily rely on the audience's assumed anxieties about being stranded up high. Yes, the drama does revolve around the characters' struggling to find a safe way back down from their 2,000-foot perch, but it very quickly evolves into an "Escape Room" style adventure, where the thrills come from trying to work out the next part of the puzzle directly in front of them, even as the threat of death lingers menacingly in the background.

Taking thrills to new heights

The audience is put through the wringer almost immediately, as we're introduced to Becky (Grace Caroline Curry, here credited as Grace Fulton) via a traumatic flashback. Once a keen climber, her passion was put to the test when her husband Dan (Mason Gooding) died after plummeting to his death in a mountain climbing accident. We pick up exactly 51 weeks later when Becky has taken up unhealthy means of coping with her trauma until the sudden re-arrival of her best friend and budding climber Hunter (Virginia Gardener) aims to put a stop to all of that. Hunter is an extreme sports vlogger with thousands of social media followers. She wants to enlist Becky to overcome her newfound fear by taking on the biggest challenge yet: climbing up a 2,000-foot radio tower in the middle of the desert. One of her persuasive arguments is that, up there, she can finally scatter Dan's ashes, so he can effectively go on one last climb and be remembered for doing what he loved.

From the offset, Mann (who co-wrote the screenplay with regular collaborator Jonathan Frank) is self-aware of just how ridiculous this is — entire sequences feel designed to get audiences to start heckling the poor decisions of the characters onscreen. One of his masterstrokes is the characterization of Hunter, knowing that for Becky to function as an audience surrogate thrown into an unbelievable life-or-death situation, her best friend has to be an absolute nightmare to be around. Gardener successfully lives up to this challenge, expertly playing a character who doesn't realize how much she manipulates her uncomfortable friend into following her. It's entirely through her performance that the film manages to sell the preposterous prospect that anybody in their right mind would climb this tower; when you play on your vulnerable friend's emotions that casually, it makes perfect sense they'd abandon all logic to follow you up to the top.

The film is at its best during this opening climb to the top, where Mann lingers on every last detail that could trigger a ripple of anxiety, to a knowingly dark comic effect. Even if you don't have a fear of heights, seeing the ladder wobble or screws come loose as they make their ascent, all while we hear exposition about them having reached the height of the Eiffel Tower at the halfway point, may leave you close to breaking out in a nervous fit of giggles. There's no surprise as to what comes next, and the director weaponizes this to great effect; any tension is replaced by a lingering dread, which is here represented by jet-black gallows humor.

Uses its low budget well

While there is some ropey CGI in the earliest stretches of the climb (which is easily forgivable considering the film's minuscule $3 million budget), when we get to the top, the visual effects are well-utilized to help maintain this feeling of anxiety. Even as the story itself becomes more of a puzzle box thriller, with the characters trying out various spur of moment schemes to try to get back down after the ladder breaks off and crashes 2,000 feet below, the seemingly endless desert backdrop ensures it's never possible to forget the sheer scale of the challenge they're up against. Likely due to budgetary resources, the director doesn't throw too many CGI-created obstacles in the way that isn't already on the tower with them, except for two vultures who swoop menacingly close to the tower, smelling potential death at any moment. Instead, he embraces the limitations of the single location, with every escape plan grounded in the practicalities of the pair's immediate surroundings; there's only one plan involving a phone charger, teased in the film's first act, that stretches credulity to breaking point. Considering just how preposterous this quite literally high-concept thriller is, that's impressive.

Speaking of the CGI, "Fall" has made headlines this week due to the sheer extent the filmmakers have gone to achieve a PG-13 rating. Mann is the co-founder of an AI company called Flawless, which uses deepfake-style technology to effectively dub films into any foreign language (he's previously said the company was created due to seeing a terrible dub of one of his earlier films). With too many F-bombs in the finished cut for the MPAA's liking, Mann used this technology to effectively redub all of his actresses' foul-mouthed dialogue in "Fall," to the extent you likely won't notice unless you're looking out for it — having watched the film before the Variety report revealing this, I have to say I was none the wiser. Due to the very nature of its concept, "Fall" is a movie driven by CGI, and yet it rarely calls attention to itself, let alone feels distracting. That it succeeds in doing so with just $3 million to play with, while other summer tentpole blockbusters are increasingly criticized for poor visual effects on gargantuan budgets, should ideally see Mann get offered a larger-scale project for his next directorial outing — he knows how to craft something truly exciting while working within very obvious limitations.

"Fall" is far from perfect, not least because of a third-act twist that could have easily been written out; this is a B-movie that falls nearly 20 minutes over its ideal 90-minute runtime, largely due to how it maneuvers around this plot development. But for the most part, this is an effective nuts-and-bolts thriller, designed to leave you on the edge of your seat, shouting at the screen — the ideal movie to see with a packed crowd.

"Fall" drop into theaters on Friday, August 12.