The most amazing thing about this standard sci-fi drama is how good it looks for how low budget it is. Unfortunately, the lack of dialogue in favor of visual storytelling ends the film with as many questions as it started with.
The year is 2057. On a remote scientific base on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, a man named Hayes (Paul Nolan) has been sent to investigate the mysterious suicide of the team leader. In the isolated, cramped, and lonely station cut off by a raging storm outside, Hayes sets out to make his interviews short with the two remaining base researchers, Lippert (Sally Mercer) and Sterner (Curt Karibalis). With secrets of his own and memories he’d prefer to forget, Hayes uncovers something more than the scope of his original investigation. Is it just his imagination, or is it something more sinister?
Ascension is a feature-length sci-fi drama, but I hesitate to call it a thriller. The opening is interesting enough, with a lone investigator being sent into the unknown to settle a “routine” suicide. It resonates with the promise of a modern Outland, which was more horror than sci-fi but still fits: a single detective (that no one seems to have asked for) trying to ensure that a mere suicide is exactly that. Shortly after landing, however, interviews commence using a recording device that may or may not be a lie detector, and another dimension is added to the story.
Sometime later, however, the story suddenly tightens on the character of Hayes (a good idea; the camera loves his face and Nolan’s the best actor of the three) while the plot takes an “Outer Limits” turn into the existential by way of the late Stanley Kubrick. I cannot say I’m a fan of the “meaningful visual ending” experience because imagery in place of dialogue sometimes leaves more questions for viewers than it answers. For my own interpretation, either the end of the film was simply too deep for my limited lifetime of experience to fathom or the character of Hayes should watch a lot more science fiction to see how obvious the clues in his investigation were.
There were many missed opportunities for additional drama, such as the brilliantly-conceived but underused investigator’s recorder. Also, finding a hidden cache of evidence left from the suicide could have had an effect, as well as deadlier confrontations between Hayes and the remaining scientists on the base. As it is, there’s a lot of walking around and looking confused with little understanding as to why everyone seems to be sitting around waiting; if they are all waiting for something, why did anyone even bother to report the suicide to begin with?
The production, however, is to be commended. From the choice of using actual film (and spending the better chunk of the budget to do so) to a set and special effects no less effective than 1979’s Alien, Ascension even draws unique inspiration for the computer menus from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately, the story also nips some of the existential fantasy ending from Kubrick, which means that even this independent film still has one thing it can learn from Hollywood: when you see what you have and know what you still need, the term “reshoots” isn’t always a bad thing (assuming there’s enough cash left to afford it).