One of the great wonders of filmmaking is how a few moving images on a flat screen — composed and choreographed just for that — can make a viewer’s palms sweat and hearts race. Just look at “Fall,” a survival thriller that sometimes feels like an extended experience to sting audiences, testing how many times director Scott Mann can induce a state of mild panic by repeatedly showing the same image. This image ? Two young women stand on a small metal platform, perched 2,000 feet above the ground, attached to a narrow tower without a ladder.
“Fall” stars Grace Caroline Currey as Becky, a skilled mountaineer still reeling a year after witnessing her husband’s accidental death during a climb. Virginia Gardner plays her best friend, Hunter, a social media influencer and daredevil who tries to shake Becky from her torpor by inviting her up an abandoned communications tower in the desert. Going up, the ladies have a ladder – rusty and flimsy. But as they triumphantly take selfies at the top, the way back falls apart.
Mann and his co-writer, Jonathan Frank, follow many formulas for these kinds of movies, for better or for worse. Instead, they flesh out their story with Becky’s personal trauma, making her unresolved feelings about her husband’s death a bigger part of the plot than they should.
On the plus side, “Fall” does what the best survival movies do, carefully listing the resources the heroes have at their disposal so we can watch them figure out how to deploy those pieces to good effect – or wince as they waste chances. As the ladder crashes, Becky and Hunter have no cell service, and the backpack with their water is stuck on a flat surface about 20 feet below them. But they have a drone camera, a flare gun, two phones, and climbing gear. How can they use what they have to get help, while avoiding circling vultures and high winds?
A similar question could be posed to filmmakers: can they do enough with this tiny amount of material to fill an entire movie? Well… sort of. Mann and Frank throw in unexpected twists and hurdles; but while this film is quite long, it still feels like an extra story beat or two is missing sooner or later. The space occupied by Becky’s grief could have been filled with something more viscerally captivating.
It says: Oh my God, that tower is so tall and that platform so small, and these women look like they’re barely hanging on. For the most part, “Fall” works because it tugs at the same raw nerve over and over again. How many times can Mann scare the audience into a dizzying shot of the unfolding crisis? Everytime. Sometimes cinema is simple.
Evaluation: PG-13, for bloody images, intense peril, and foul language
Operating time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general version on August 12