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The Premise vs. The Story
The new common-fear thriller "Fall" profoundly illustrates the difference.
I tend to enjoy common-fear thrillers. Since it’s a film genre I just made up the name for 30 seconds ago, I should probably explain what it is. To me, it’s a very narrowly focused survival story, featuring no more than three central characters, that taps into basic human fears — fears that have gone through pretty much everyone’s mind.
A good example is 2003’s Open Water, a very low-budget (but well presented) film about a vacationing married couple who gets separated from their scuba-diving group during a boat tour in the middle of the ocean. A botched head-count of returning divers prompts the boat to return to shore with the rest of the group (the last tour of the day), while the couple is still underwater enjoying the ocean scenery.
The story gets deep into multiple fears, including abandonment, sharks, currents, extreme weather, dehydration, and the capacity to stay afloat. It was even based on a horrific true story.
What separates the movie from lots of survival thrillers is its realism. The story isn’t sensationalized, and the actors talk and act like real people. The husband and wife are very relatable to the audience, with all of their cascading emotions as they react to the extreme circumstances they’ve found themselves in. Another important component is the detail and expertise that went into story. The husband and wife team that directed and produced the film were both avid scuba divers. They understood scuba gear and procedures, ocean life, ocean currents, etc. And it very much showed in the storytelling.
There’s actually a sequel to Open Water (a completely separate ocean-survival story) that is pretty decent in its own right.
If you’ve ever gone downhill skiing, you’ve assuredly gone through the common situation, on your way up the slope, of your chairlift stopping for a while. This usually happens when someone at the bottom had trouble getting on, and an operator flipped a switch for safety concerns.
You find yourself sitting on the chair alone, or next to a friend, with your legs and skis dangling high above the snow-covered mountain. Only a bar separates the open air between you and the ground. If things don’t start back up fairly soon, and without any communication from below, you might find yourself beginning to wonder if there’s a serious technical problem at play. If that’s the case, what next?
Are you going to be stuck up there for potentially hours, increasingly feeling the bite of the cold and wind, while mechanics work on the problem, and rescue workers decide if they need to start making their up to you with a ladder or ropes? Do you start building the image in your mind of jumping (hoping the snow below will prevent injury) or climbing up to the thick wire above, traversing hand over hand to the nearest support beam, and then climbing down its ladder?
Those fears and thought-processes are the premise of 2010’s Frozen (not to be confused with the later Disney film of the same name). It tells the story of three friends at a ski resort, who — at closing time before a long-weekend shutdown — talk a chairlift operator into letting them go on one last run down the mountain. Some confusion leads a replacement operator shutting down the chairlift for the night… while the three skiers are still on it, part way up the mountain.
After a while, as night sets in and the slope lights shut off, the three realize they’ve been forgotten. No one’s left on the mountain to hear their calls for help, and the chairlift won’t be started back up for days. The wind is picking up, temperatures are dropping fast, and there might just be the threat of wolves below.
Frozen is cheesier than Open Water, but it does capture the fear-factor well, and the characters use relatable (albeit desperate) logic to face the situation.
I think I’d even lump The Blair Witch Project in with this genre, not for the paranormal stuff, of course, but rather its chilling and realistic portrayal of getting lost in the woods for days, and hearing spooky sounds outside your tent.
Last weekend at the theater, I saw a brand new common-fear thriller with my wife and daughter. It’s called Fall, and while the trailer looked a little hokey, I thought the premise itself was fantastic.
It’s about two young women, Becky and Hunter, who set out to climb to the top of a 2,000-foot retired TV tower. The two attempt the feat (in the middle of the desert) for very different reasons. Hunter is an adrenaline junky who records herself performing daring stunts for YouTube clicks (which earns her money that supports her lifestyle). Becky, on the other hand, is trying to “face her fears” (at least that’s what Hunter convinces her she’s doing) following her husband Dan’s climbing death about a year earlier.
Where the film excels is its visual presentation of the tower itself. It’s quite thin, breathtakingly high, and rattles and creaks with age and rust. Needless to say, the “common fear” being focused on in this movie is that of heights. And just watching the two women climb the tower literally brings sweat to your palms and tightness to your chest.
The movie poster below actually represents the film’s imagery quite well.
But there’s a difference between a strong premise and a strong story. And in the unfortunate case of Fall, the premise and imagery were so strong that the filmmakers apparently felt they could afford to phone-in the rest. All of the ingredients were present for a truly delicious dish, but everything was then just kind of tossed together in all the wrong proportions, along with lots of ketchup and mustard haphazardly squirted over the top.
As a teller of thriller stories myself, I feel a little uncomfortable critiquing other thrillers (especially those that, as in the case of film adaptations, will likely make more money than my novels ever will). But when I see a ball dropped as hard (and as needlessly) as this one, I suppose my early writing work as a film reviewer inclines me to relay my disappointment.
So, that’s what I’m doing today. Here we go…
Warning: there will be a ton of SPOILERS below, so if you plan on seeing the movie, and don’t want to read them, now’s the time to scroll on down to the “Random Thought” section.
Growing up in Colorado, I’ve done a lot of hiking along many different types of terrain. But I’ve only done actual rock climbing — up the steep, natural face of a mountain (with ropes, harnesses, and the other the equipment) — once. I went with an experienced friend who knew what he was doing, and I learned a fair amount about the mechanics and techniques. But I’m not even sure that little bit of hands-on education was necessary to recognize just how over-the-top ridiculous the opening scene of Fall was.
That’s when, as I mentioned above, Becky’s husband dies. He, along with his wife and Hunter, are confidently and rather quickly climbing up a serious mountain face — something that, in real life, requires a good amount of know-how, focus, and experience. But these climbers are cracking jokes, exchanging kisses and hugs, and don’t really seem to be paying a whole lot of attention to… well, the rock itself. (This carefree, dumbfounding lack of focus becomes a running theme in the film).
Anyway, a fright from a bird causes Dan to lose his footing and fall, and of course the pitons he earlier shoved into rock-crevices snap loose one at a time (a bit of a film cliche). But what killed me (and what ultimately killed him) was that each time Dan was left dangling in the air for tense moments as the next piton would (in silly fashion) work its way loose, he didn’t do what any climber (especially one purportedly experienced) would have done: keep his movements to a minimum as he tried to get a grip back on the rock. Instead, he completely freaked out, screaming, and arms and legs flailing as if he were being subjected to multi-participant tickle-torture.
It was absolutely cartoonish, and when the husband finally falls to his death, you’re almost left thinking that it was probably for the best, since he was now out of his misery.
Becky falls into an almost year-long alcoholic depression, dreaming of her late husband every night, and calling his still-active voicemail to hear his voice. Hunter reemerges, and thinks she has the solution to Becky’s problems: face down your fears by climbing this crazy-tall tower with me.
This is a pretty weird pitch on its face, because Becky’s “fear” doesn’t really seem to be heights, but rather being alone without her husband. But I guess there’s more of a metaphorical angle at play. Still, one has to seriously question Hunter’s judgement. I mean, if one’s looking for a climbing partner for a death-defying stunt, I would imagine that there are much better choices than a depressed, mourning alcoholic who hasn’t addressed any of her internal issues.
Anyway, Becky eventually agrees. The two drive out to the desert, and after some last minute reservations from Becky, they begin their ascent. To be clear, this isn’t the same type of scaling as with a rock face, or even the wall of a building. The tower has a steel ladder that goes all the way up to the top.
Still, it’s a very long way down (2,000 feet), and because of the age and shape of the tower, one has to be especially careful and take precautions. Hunter and Becky, however, apparently disagree. They’re wearing normal street shoes (one has high-tops), and neither has gloves, powder, or anything else that would help with their grip. They are wearing harnesses, but only to attach themselves to each other (not to the structure) with a rope… which basically just assures that if one of them falls, they both fall.
Surely there had to be some technical advisors on the set, but they apparently weren’t consulted in regard to the script; this goes to my point about expertise and authenticity. But as I mentioned earlier, the cinematography is great, and the actress who plays Becky at least displays some appropriate fear and tension as they climb higher, the tower rattles louder, and the wind picks up. Hunter, not so much; she’s just having a good time.
Despite the needless suspension of belief forced by the story, the imagery holds up, and like I said, draws a physical and physiological reaction from the audience… at least to a point.
That point is the tiny platform at the top of the tower (shown in the poster above). Once the two reach it, pretty much any fear that Becky had suddenly disappears, replaced entirely by a sense of triumph. The two holler in victory, snap off fun selfies, and then take turns dangling off the platform by their hands, laughing and smiling and having a good time... again, without any ropes attaching them to the structure.
Giggle, giggle, giggle. The scene exhibits a level of situational unawareness that rivals a Beavis and Butthead episode, as do many scenes that follow.
As the women are about to go back down, the ladder breaks off the tower, and what little gear they’d brought in a backpack falls and snags itself on a large satellite dish several feet down. They’re stuck on their tiny little platform, with no one expecting them back anytime soon, yet they’re fairly confident they’ll be rescued within an hour or two.
“Heh, heh-heh! That would be cool, heh, heh-heh!”
Their logic is that the ladder made a lot of noise when it fell, and Hunter’s social-media followers (though no one else) knew the two were climbing the tower that day.
Of course, the optimism doesn’t pan out, so the two eventually try other things — some that make sense and some that don’t, all while never seeming to recognize the serious danger of just being on such a narrow platform (that they could easily be pushed off of with a sudden wind-gust or even a strong sneeze). They just kind of sit there with their legs dangling off it, never bothering to attach themselves to the pole at its center, or even hold onto it.
At one point they come up with the idea of lowering Hunter on a rope to the backpack, with hopes of using the drone inside to fly a message to a diner they had eaten at before their climb.
Okay, that makes sense… kind of.
Despite the rope being a shy short, Hunter reaches the surprisingly sturdy satellite dish, and takes a seat. But instead of proceeding with the plan from there, Hunter decides she needs to dangerously climb back up the just-out-of-reach rope to the platform, and begin the flight from there.
To add insult to injury, Hunter and Becky aren’t the only characters in the film without any sense of perspective. At one point, the two actually do manage to get a couple of people’s attention on the ground, using a flare gun. The two men who spot them recognize that the women are stuck at the top of the 2,000-foot tower, and facing imminent death. But instead of calling for help, they see an opportunity to steal Hunter’s (old and not so valuable) car parked at the bottom. They wave goodbye as they take off in it.
Also, there may or may not be vulture attacks (including a tense vulture stare-down).
By about the half-way point in the film, the theater audience (including my family) was openly laughing at the absurdity of it all. It’s a shame, because had the writing just been run by some regular people with regular sensibilities, the end product could have been something special and memorable.
Viewers are even denied a pay-off rescue at the end, not because there wasn’t a rescue, but because no one bothered to film it. I won’t get into the details, but through technology, others on the ground are eventually made aware of the perilous situation. And once that happens, the very next scene is at the bottom of the tower, post-rescue. There’s a helicopter hovering in the air, so it’s presumed to have been part of it, but that’s it.
This dud of a film of course won’t turn me off of the common-fear thriller genre, but man, what a bummer. You can have a spectacular premise (as this was), but if the story is silly and unbelievable, it unfortunately doesn’t matter.
Have a favorite common-fear thriller? Tell me it in an email or in the comment section below.
Obligatory Dog Shot
Keeping an eye out for the Gorn.
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I wrote about the modern day Bobcat Goldthwait in a recent newsletter, but this week’s featured vinyl is some vintage Bobcat from back in 1988, when the comic was arguably at the height of his career. His “Meat Bob” live-set album (which might have the most disturbing cover of any albums in my collection), provides a healthy portion of the outlandish, comedic character that many of us Police Academy fans still hold near and dear to our hearts.
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