Synopsis: Fear reaches new heights as two best friends find themselves at the top of a 2,000-foot radio tower
Stars: Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner, Mason Gooding, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Director: Scott Mann
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Why is it that when we’re young and don’t know any better, we dash headfirst into adrenaline-rich experiences and seek out high-up views, but once we reach a certain age, a hesitant develops? Some never get that momentary pause of caution that tells them to look before they leap or take a breath before they ascend. A swirling rollercoaster is a welcome challenge, and a sheer glass surface on a double-digit floor of skyscrapers in the clouds is a great place to stand and stare down. I used to be a person who could handle all that and wasn’t bothered by those thrills. Over time I’ve found it more difficult to step to the edge of a balcony, queue up for a speeding cyclone amusement park ride, or, lately, even watch movies that center on those walking the razor’s edge of extreme sports.
The set-up of Fall is marvelous. I’m sure when the director and co-writer Scott Mann pitched the movie to Lionsgate alongside fellow screenwriter Jonathan Frank, he barely had to finish the first sentence before a deal was on the table. Filmed during the pandemic with a minuscule cast from the producer of the (very) similar 47 Meters Down, Lionsgate invested in a ringer. Amid a moderate rise in the popularity of free climbing (no doubt due to the Oscar-winning doc Free Solo), the film would ostensibly put two women on top of an abandoned radio tower and then let them find their way down.
I could describe the plot of Fall almost entirely by throwing out titles of other films instead. That might spoil it for you, but it illustrates how much it manages to lift directly from other movies. A quickie opening establishes the trauma that leaves Becky (Grace Caroline Currey, Annabelle: Creation), a young widow, and her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner, 2018’s Halloween) dealing with her pain by publicly pushing herself to often-dangerous physical limits. Unable to be comforted by her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Rampage, filming his scenes with a double for Fulton), Becky spends 51 weeks (yes, the movie makes it that specific) wallowing in grief before Hunter arrives to snap her out of it.
What better way to exorcise her past demons than by literally and figuratively climbing out of her despair? Hunter has challenged herself and extends an invite to Becky to scale a decommissioned TV tower in the California desert. The structure stands 2,000 feet in the air and is well-worn but has held together, and Hunter wants Becky to conquer it with her to prove to herself that this pain will pass and life will go on. Reluctantly, Becky agrees, and before you know it, the two have made the tense ascent up to the top and selfied themselves at the pinnacle. The climb has loosened the rusty ladder from its screws, though, and one wrong step sets off a chain of catastrophic events that trap the women on their sky-high perch. With their route down impossible, it eventually becomes a life-or-death struggle for survival where they’ll have to innovate to survive the elements and make it back to solid ground.
While Mann and Frank’s conception of Fall is a gleeful doozy of high-stakes survival, the execution hits some rough patches. Anyone who saw the almost entirely CGI-generated original teaser trailer can attest that if you ask the audience to sit on the edge of their seats, they must believe what they see—at least a little bit. The best actors and screenplay aren’t going to save lousy everything else. What tends to weigh the Fall production down more than anything are computer-generated backgrounds that look like off-brand Windows 95 screensavers. An opening scene on a large rock face features many distance drone shots circling the mass, but you can barely spot the actors on it because they either a) weren’t there to begin with or b) are on a smaller mountain, and the effects team filled the rest of the rock in later. The scene played strangely on my large screen at home; I can’t imagine how it would look in a theater – maybe better?
Budgetary and filming restrictions necessitated the filmmakers to get inventive in how they shot the actors, and kudos to them for coming up with ways to rely on the CGI as little as possible. These unobstructed shots come off the best and give you those beads of brow sweat the rest of the film is missing. Often in movies like this, viewers can become active participants by shouting at the characters making unwise choices. Still, for Fall, the screenplay doesn’t play Becky and Hunter as foolish, aside from climbing up a structure they shouldn’t and not telling anyone where they were going. Once they are stuck, the women show themselves to be quick thinking and resourceful, not blanking on the best idea we all know they should be undertaking until the final act. I do wish a late-in-the-game plot twist wasn’t outright stolen from a similar film, though. Viewers with a keen eye (well, ear) will catch on quickly if they miss any earlier clues.
Like that CGI teaser and frequent use of computer-generated backgrounds, Fall feels like a film engineered for an audience rather than made. Even the dialogue has been changed after the movie was shot, with over 30 expletives replaced with PG-13 friendly words by AI company Flawless and the TrueSync technology. Wouldn’t you know that the director is the co-CEO of that company? That’s why you’ll hear heavy use of the word “freaking” throughout. It’s all part of the algorithm the film fits into, which makes it feel less like an organic bit of energetic entertainment and more like a calculated effort to hit as many target audiences as possible in one swoop.
Here’s the truth, though. While parts of Fall are hokey and could be refined or outright tossed, it delivers on its mission. For all my talks about engineering to target audiences, it accomplished that with this viewer. I absolutely found myself covering my eyes as one or both women were hanging by their fingernails under the blazing Mojave sun. Whether avoiding menacing vultures that smell blood or risking a deadly drop to access necessary supplies, I was on the edge of my seat while in the moment. I can nitpick all I want after, but that’s not fair to the overall movie experience or the filmmakers that did their job. Once we get past some iffy opening drama and bypass the unnecessary strife between the ladies later on when the focus is survival, Fall rises to the occasion.