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‘Ascendant’ Falls Victim to its Scattered Genre Ambitions


2021 has not been a great year for Australian cinema. It’s important to support the Australian film industry, and it has delivered solid mainstream films like The Dry and High Ground, but we Aussie filmmakers need to up our games. In comes Ascendant, an independent Australian film that seeks to experiment with its science fiction and mystery genres, but its inability to effortlessly pull off its execution lead to something so convoluted that it is difficult to determine its intentions.

Aria Wolf (Charlotte Best) wakes up in the dark, blindfolded and gagged, with her hands restrained behind her back. She can’t see where she’s going, shuffling around the floor, and using her sense of touch to determine where she is. She hears whirring until she flies across the air and smacks into a ceiling. The room is moving, frequently going up and down. Finally breaking free of her restraints, Aria discovers she is trapped in an elevator of a high-rise building and calls for help, noticing a CCTV camera placed in the corner and accessing her phone to find out details. But she hears a voice recording left on her phone that reveals she and her family, while on a trip to Shanghai, have been kidnapped and forcibly separated. Then the screen turns on to a live stream, revealing Aria’s father Richard (Jonny Pasvolsky), to be held hostage by Yaroslav (Alex Menglet) and his henchmen, who want to determine the location of an engineer who knows Aria’s origins. There, she discovers suppressed secrets about herself which she must weaponise to escape.

I’d tell you more about the plot, but this is as close as I can get. Unfortunately, I did not understand any of the plot twists that took place. The initial setup should be asking questions — and that’s what Ascendant does right, but what it does wrong is accidentally creating plot holes in the process. How do the villains not notice that Aria has a functioning phone the entire time? Why didn’t they get rid of it? Why an elevator of all places? It’s questions like these that take you out of the film, and Ascendant suffers because of that.

Antaine Furlong seems eager to play around with Ascendant’s sci-fi elements, and I have to give him credit for trying to do something different with the concept. It’s a shame that its near-singular elevator setting limits the creative scope of Ascendant. True, single-location films can be amazing if they fully exploit the geography and place to serve the story, but that’s not the case in Ascendant. Fiona Donovan’s production design is pretty, and it complements the film’s overall look if you can ignore terrible CGI in the climax. Sadly, the setting restricts any sense of excitement and when the villains manipulate the elevator mechanics to torture Aria and torment her father, it grows repetitive. It’s easy to lose track of how many times this happens, which may serve as the basis of a new drinking game with your mates.

Ascendant tries to traverse against the trappings of its settings, divulging plot information through excessive usage of Aria’s phone as a plot device and a reliance on flashbacks. It’s one thing to utilise clichéd plot devices to let your mystery unfold, but it’s another to reveal some information too early, which the trailers spoiled. Still, I won’t reveal that for viewers remaining eager (or, in this case, morbidly curious) to watch the film. It loses some suspense in the process and risks losing audience engagement, especially since Ascendant fails to provide a sense of coherency.

The editing lacks consistency, making the sound design and dialogue unintelligible to hear. Some abrupt flashback transitions lead to insanely unconvincing child acting, making you wonder if anyone thought they tried their best with the current takes and accepted them for the final cut. Aside from Jonny Pasvolsky’s ridiculous performance and the overall cheesy acting, Charlotte Best essentially carries Ascendant on her back. Sometimes, her performance threatens to feel overbearing, but she effectively captures her character’s fear and uncertainty before being able to provide the film’s emotional heart. Only partially, however. The rest of Ascendant’s heart is left behind in the scattered genre mashups, lost within the most simplistic of characterisations, and Furlong’s directorial debut ultimately struggles to deliver confident storytelling and balanced tonal shifts.

Ascendant seems preoccupied with appealing to international audiences, with most of the Australian cast struggling with their American accents, and creating room for a sequel. The most exciting action of Ascendant ends up underdelivering in its final moments, and Furlong and Kieron Holland’s script promises to clarify messy plot threads by making a second film. It’s unfair to audiences who try to invest time unlocking the mystery, only to get little out of the experience — and it won’t matter if your film had a low budget. It’s a film made of disorientating passion and its visuals can’t save Ascendant from its sloppy execution, making its wide theatrical release in Australia further questionable. Perhaps with a push in the right direction, Ascendant may have been a more innovative and thoughtful Aussie flick that could have challenged audiences and left them with a unique cinematic experience. Only one can dream.

Score: 3/10.


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