It may have nothing on Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s unbelievably harrowing 2018 documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold (who achieves his record-breaking feats sans ropes, harnesses or any other protective gear), but Fall remains the most anxiety-inducing film of the summer. The story of two friends who wind up stranded atop the fourth tallest structure in the United States, it’s a simple and straightforward B-movie (Aug. 12, in theaters) whose clichéd plotting is outweighed by its clever CGI and crafty choreography, both of which result in a collection of memorably heart-stopping moments. Those with a fear of heights, it goes without saying, should avoid it at all costs.
As with 47 Meters Down, the prior survivalist thriller from producers James Harris and Mark Lane, Fall is about two female daredevils (one of them nursing a broken heart) who opt to jointly do something inherently dangerous, only to then become trapped in a perilous situation from which they must creatively escape. In this instance, the duo in question are Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and Hunter (Virginia Gardner), close friends who are introduced showing off their adrenaline-junkie skills by climbing a sheer mountain face alongside Becky’s husband Dan (Mason Gooding). Though director Scott Mann—a veteran of direct-to-VOD throwaways featuring the cameoing-for-money likes of Robert De Niro, Dave Bautista, and Pierce Brosnan—doesn’t telegraph what’s to come, anyone who’s ever seen a movie like this knows that Dan isn’t going to make it past this introduction. Fast-forward a year and Becky is a grieving mess, drowning her sorrows in a bottle and alienating her loving father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose pleas to Becky to get over Dan are in vain—to some extent because he also keeps noting that her spouse wasn’t as great as she remembers.
An opportunity for healing comes courtesy of Hunter, who materializes on Becky’s doorstep with a proposition: join her on a climb up a remote 2,000-foot-tall radio tower in the middle of the Mojave Desert that’s out of commission and just begging to be conquered by a thrill-seeker with time on her hands. Since she can scatter Dan’s ashes from this summit, Becky reluctantly agrees to get back on the proverbial horse and accompany Hunter on this mission, and though her nerves are still frayed when she arrives at the tower, she refuses to bail on their plan. That alone is a triumph, since via master shots that set it against the surrounding sky and desert, Fall does an excellent job casting the tower as an intensely imposing structure that juts out of the ground and toward the heavens like the world’s most terrifying needle. To reach the small circular platform at its peak—above which only stands a spire with a flashing light on its tip, to ward off passing planes—Becky and Hunter must traverse a rusty ladder that neither looks nor sounds trustworthy and, at a certain point, is not enclosed by scaffolding.
On their drive to the tower, Becky happens upon an iPhone photo of Hunter with an enigmatic beau whom she’s unwilling to identify—a mystery that’s as predictable as the ensuing action is exciting. As Becky and Hunter begin their ascent, director Mann (working from a script co-written by Jonathan Frank) places a premium on compositions that accentuate the altitude at which his protagonists are operating, gazing at them from above and below as they scale a structure devoid of safety nets. Those vertiginous images are dizzying and stomach-churning, and all the more impressive for being the obvious byproduct of green-screen and computer-generated effects. Save for a few brief moments, Mann pulls off his aesthetic trick, which also includes the reported use of deep-fake technology to eliminate profanity from his heroines’ mouths in order to nab the film a PG-13 rating.
Sad good-girl Becky and upbeat wild-child Hunter’s dynamic is as standard-issue as they come—and epitomized by the amount of T&A they respectively display. This is part and parcel of Fall’s cheesy spirit, which escalates as the women make their way up the tower. If that trip is hazardous, however, it’s nothing compared to the predicament they find themselves in once they complete their task, take some photos (including one in which wannabe-influencer Hunter dangles by a single hand off the grated platform) and begin their descent. At that point, Mann’s film kicks into serious gear, with the ladder giving way and plummeting to the ground below, and Becky and Hunter barely scrambling back onto their tiny perch in one piece. With no cell service, limited resources at their disposal–namely, a drone with dwindling battery power—and few options for safely returning to terra firma, the pair appears nothing short of screwed.
“With no cell service, limited resources at their disposal–namely, a drone with dwindling battery power—and few options for safely returning to terra firma, the pair appears nothing short of screwed.”
Fall establishes its scenario through suggestions of impending menace and vulnerability, be it close-ups of ladder bolts shaking in their holes or vultures feasting on the carcass of their latest prey. Concurrently, it introduces details that will ultimately play a role in Becky and Hunter’s potential survival, such as Hunter’s nifty life-hack regarding a way to charge an electronic device. Better still, Becky and Hunter rarely behave stupidly (save, of course, for their initial decision to climb the tower) or manage to accomplish the absurdly impossible; to a reasonable degree, Mann and Frank’s script sticks to reality in devising both obstacles and solutions, and then stages those sequences for maximum, palm-sweating horror.
Despite its by-the-book character drama, Fall is a crafty genre film that knows how to generate tension and dispense payoffs, right up until a late narrative twist that few will likely see coming. It’s not easy to make audiences gasp for breath when they recognize that the individuals in question aren’t going to die (yet), and Mann pulls that off multiple times during this high-wire act, only stumbling at the finish line. It’s still not enough to kill the buzz provided by this lean, cunning film, which more than ably delivers on its premise’s death-defying promise.
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